Concert review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foxygen and Wampire soak the Firebird in feedback and feeling, Saturday, March 9
A line of 50 people stood before the entrance of the Firebird some time around 8:30 p.m. Steeped in the well-known buzz of “stoked,” they chatted amicably amongst themselves and fellow waiters.
The majority in line was male, clad in street variations of their work uniforms. Burnt khaki-colored jeans, patterned sweaters and shoes that took a palette cue from neon, the crowd for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s set was as attractive and vibrant as it was dense.
Once inside, the solid crowd turned its attention to Portland, Ore.’s Wampire. Had the crowd not have been so curious, they would have missed, bar none, the night’s best set. Wampire’s guitar tones sounded clean enough to be prerecorded and the guitar solos were not ostentatious, but worked seamlessly within the songs without a cacophonous or self-indulgent air. Playing heavily in its favor was the awareness Wampire had of its sound, influences and audience.
On this evening, what made Foxygen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra less engaging than Wampire was their rehashing of Woodstock-era showmanship. The incessant use of feedback, delay pedals and three-minute jams on every four-minute song was overwhelming. It’s interesting to note that UMO’s bassist, Jacob Portrait produced Wampire’s full-length debut. Wampire’s tracks are multilevel, yet stacked well enough to pull off simplicity. Had Ariel Pink surfed off Ocean Park Pier with the Z-Boys, he would have recorded the undeniably pleasant tracks off “Curiosity.”
“Hearse” demolished any hope the latter acts would have of conjuring up sets as melodious and succinct as Wampire’s. The band’s interchangeable tones, manifest on the song “Hearse,” created a maelstrom of ethereal emotions. If the dawn could be heard from miles away, it would wake the world every morning with such sounds. Suffice it to say, I will yearn for “Curiosity”‘s May release. I’m not alone: crowd members purred “WHOM-PY-HER” in Bela Lugosi’s Transylvanian drawl when the set ended. They, too, had been bitten.
Adorned in a hoodie he constructed from the alpaca he shaved prior to the show, Foxygen’s Sam France looked like Father John Misty’s camelid-obsessed baby brother. Someone should have brayed “Bah Ram Ewe.” As indicated from his get-up, France did not appear to take the set all too seriously. Point: He spoke without any self-awareness into the microphone between songs. His banter ranged from confusion “What song’s next?” to incoherent introductions, “Y’know, same story…I don’t wanna be your boyfriend….” The only guiding light came from guitarist Jonathan Rado. Whenever he spoke it was refreshing; he sounded lucid and polite.
Given the right audience, France could be electrifying. He accompanied Foxygen’s quick-draw tempo changes with enthusiasm. He sung-spoke and performed in a Dr. Frankenfurter fashion as his amp crackled every five seconds or so. Unabashed, he stole mics from bandmates, forced some to sing and carried on like it was the second night of Bonnaroo and his acid tab had just dissolved.
The band was the paradigm of organized chaos. At times the tempo changes, overt droning and delirium-inducing noise would coalesce into hints of melody. For the most part, Foxygen’s set was mesmerizing for the noise alone. So aggressively did it bombard the ears that the audience, myself included, watched the majority of the show with glazed peepers and a listless body. Transfixed by the hypnotic squalls of Rado’s guitar and France’s shrieks, once the plug was pulled it felt like I had been punched into a state of psychosis. My plus-one and I dragged ourselves to the car and sat down to achieve of respite free of agonized jam sessions. We put on “How High the Moon” by So Many Dynamos because we were ravenous for a beat.
The recovery could have been fulfilled had Unknown Mortal Orchestra not proceeded to pound the audience further. Ruban Nielson’s staccato vocal delivery paired well over drummer Riley Geare’s patterns (Geare, for the record, played his ass off). So well, in fact, that “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” gave hope that life would spring back into the night. After Foxygen, the crowd began to slip out; by the end of UMO’s set only about 60 patrons remained. Those who remained witnessed UMO slide from surf-rock inspired numbers to chugging riffs of ’70s guitar glory. Nielson is a proficient guitar player, and to call him exquisite would be less taxing that pilots. His guitar tones sounded modeled after Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Appropriately, he would play calculated patches, then let the orchestrated moments dissipate into exhaustive jam sessions. After Foxygen’s set, however, a move away from jamming and soloing and a reappearance of composition and melody would have been welcome.
The sole moment when the crowd appeared to be dialed into UMO was during the first song of the band’s encore. Paying homage to the late Jay Reatard, “My Shadow” was combustible and the crowd caught the heat. We moshed, jumped about and sang along with more enthusiasm than when UMO played an original song.
For its last number, UMO chose “Ffunny Ffrends.” Off 2011′s “Unknown Mortal Orchesta,” the tune was a blissful, toned-down conclusion to the evening. Nielson’s falsetto was clear and the band did not retreat to a cavalier jam session. Had UMO’s entire set been as kind as “Ffunny Ffrends,” I might have remembered the night as more than just an aural assault.