Didn’t make it to see Unknown Mortal Orchestra? Gemma Styles lays down their headline show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
There was a sense of polite, measured excitement in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. When the lights went down, Unknown Mortal Orchestra took to the stage and filled up the room with their flawless, melodic strings and the crowd nodded – a good decision had been made for a Wednesday night. Lead vocalist and guitarist Ruban Nielson seemed laid back and happy, starting proceedings with a quiet greeting and playing with a typically charismatic, rhythmic ducking of shoulder.
It didn’t take long for things to kick up a gear. Audience favourites like “So Good At Being In Trouble” were mixed with previous album “II’s From The Sun” and joyfully punctuated with extended, rocky instrumentals and pulsing neon beams. By the end of Riley Geare’s lengthy and frankly outrageous drum solo, the rest of the band had crouched down to reverently enjoy and the seamless transition straight back into “Ur Life One Night” made you wonder if you’d just imagined the whole thing.
The crowd were an enthusiastic bunch, mainly comprised of tall blokes, who got progressively more relaxed and bobbed their beards about with carefree abandon. Some even danced in little groups; I saw a grown man put one finger on top of his friend’s head and encourage him to spin. Another who stood next to me for a while was a delighted, flailing mass of limbs and (as he kept telling his mildly embarrassed girlfriend) “just didn’t give a fuck!” All in all it was a pretty lovely place to be.
Feeding into the contagious energy of the room, Nielson escaped the stage for a bit, scaling a set of speakers like a mountain goat and without missing a beat. After descending to hang out in the crowd for a couple of minutes he disappeared through a side door, guitar and all, reappearing moments later on the balcony, much to the delight of everyone around him. Couples smiled excitedly at each other. The Instagram potential was almost tangible.
If the album sounds like the relaxed but upbeat soundtrack to your Sunday BBQ, the live performance sounds more like when that BBQ accidentally turns into a full evening session and you decide it’s the most fun day you’ve ever had. Like, you’re still relaxed, but your neighbours are away and you don’t have to worry about keeping that bloody racket down and Monday can’t touch you. Know what I mean?
Returning for the encore in a bath of blue lights, and accompanied by a friendly trumpet, they finished up with a punchy rendition of “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” and sent us off into the night buoyant – and sad it was over.
Words: Gemma Styles