Live Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra Kept It Chill AF on NYE

The psych-funk band offered a laid-back alternative to the night's usual over-the-top antics at the Independent, on Saturday, Dec. 31.

As is the case for most people in their thirties, New Year’s Eve has lost most of its appeal for me. The idea of standing in long lines to pay for overpriced drinks at a crowded club usually leaves me shuddering. I’d much rather go downstairs to my local bar where there’s always plenty of elbow room.

But there has always been something appealing about the Independent’s annual New Year’s Eve gigs. The smallish club on Divisadero Street is one of my favorite places to catch a show, thanks to its great stage views and laid-back, comfortable setting. (Plus, it’s almost always easy to grab a drink.)

For the past several New Year’s Eves, the Independent has been bagging fun, dance-y bands (like Holy Ghost and STFCKR) that probably could have filled out larger venues. Tickets for the bashes are usually a little steep (around $100), but that includes an open-bar for the entire night.

On this New Year’s Eve, the Independent booked yet another top-flight band: the New Zealand-via-Portland quartet, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Belying the doom rock lineage of its name, UMO plays a swinging type of psychedelic-funk, specializing in cosmic sounding tunes that have plenty of movement and energy. Even when frontman Ruban Nielson is singing through a hyper-filtered microphone and playing guitar warped by countless foot pedals, you can still dance to all of UMO’s tracks, thanks in large part to the group’s enduring love for slinky bass lines.

Taking the stage around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday night, UMO showed why their last three albums have been so well-received. Nielson is an understated vocalist on stage, never resorting to screaming and other antics to grab the audience’s attention, but he makes for a beguiling presence — laid-back yet impossible to ignore.

Now more than a year removed from their last album — 2015’s excellent Multi-Love — Nielson had more range to explore the band’s full catalog, pulling on songs from the band’s debut album and follow-up II. Crowd favorites, like ”How Can You Luv Me,” “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” and “So Good at Being in Trouble” — songs that never seem to rise above a shout, but provide the requisite rhythms to make you wanna dance — were a few of the ditties on the setlist for the night.

UMO’s greatest asset might just be their penchant to demonstrate restraint. I’m sure there were plenty of die-hard fans on Saturday night, but my feeling is that most people were just excited to go out and party in a friendly, comfortable environment. The music probably acted as a secondary motivation. I mean this in the most complimentary way, but UMO seemed to thrive as the best kind of background music for New Year’s Eve. With the help of that open-bar (lines were a problem at the beginning of the show, but significantly lessened as the night wore on), the crowd at the Independent had a nice little glow for most of the evening, and UMO seemed content to let people have their little conversations without being overwhelmed by bombastic music.

That probably explains the relatively short setlist for the band. Just after midnight, when balloons dropped from the ceiling and the audience gathered for a champagne toast, UMO was ushered offstage. Normally, playing for 90 minutes would be quite the feat for a band with just three albums, but you kind of expect some marathon set from a group playing on New Year’s Eve. Still, I think that Nielson and company understood that they had performed their job admirably and were content to let opening act Morgan Delt return to the stage to close out the night.

New Year’s Eve is a night made famous by its excesses — a chance to binge one last time before purging your sins and becoming an improved, better person for the upcoming year (or at least the first two weeks of January.) The Independent and UMO proved that the opposite effect can be just as rewarding. You don’t need to go buck-wild to have a good time on New Year’s Eve.  Sometimes all it takes is one special band for you to end the year on a positive note.

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