Unknown Mortal Orchestra/Foxygen | 03.16.13

live unknown-mortal_75The druggy aesthetic of psychedelic rock was fully communicated at Firebird by two luminaries of the recent wave of revivalists, Foxygen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.


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Firebird, St. Louis

Although the druggy aesthetic of psychedelic rock has been consistently popular since its 1960s heyday, recent years have seen an enthusiastic retreat back into its hazy excesses. Many of the recent “it” bands have adopted the distorted, washed-out production and spacey vocal harmonies that characterized psychedelic rock/pop’s most celebrated acts. It is an endearing sound, propelled by both nostalgia for one of rock music’s most prolific eras and the simple desire for a temporary chemical escape from the tedium of material existence.

This noble ambition was fully communicated at Firebird when two luminaries of the recent wave of revivalists, Foxygen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, brought their cosmic craft to the local indie dungeon. While opening act Foxygen, arguably the most attention-getting group of 2013 so far, harkens back to more pop-friendly territory than their distortion-happy counterparts in UMO, both groups complimented each other excellently, making for a truly inspired show.

The show began with enthusiastic newcomers Wampire of Portland, Ore. Much like UMO, Wampire is a jam-heavy group, playing an acid-fried strain of psychedelic rock built around the frenetic, improvised solos of their lead guitarist. The highlight of their set came with a German-language cover of the Kraftwerk classic “The Model” (or “Das Model,” as it were).

The easygoing but no less spirited Foxygen followed. Though were billed as an opening act, it was clear from the enthusiastic crowd response that this band was the main event. Donning a crisp blazer and swaddled in a heavy fur coat, front-man Sam France looked like an extra from a Wes Anderson movie. Not so much a performer as a performance artist, France pranced about the stage like a possessed five-year-old, smacking a tambourine against his bushy mane and making a series of profound-looking hand gestures.

Along with comparatively laidback cohort guitarist Jonathan Rado and a full supporting band, the group tore through soulful selections from its highly praised 2013 release, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. The album, an instant classic perhaps by virtue of its uncanny reverence to the rock ’n’ roll canon, has deservedly earned Foxygen a guaranteed spot on the year-end best-of lists. The Firebird crowd looked perfectly at ease swaying along to the impossibly catchy choruses of standouts “Los Angeles” and “Shuggie,” sincere tributes to the age when Lou Reed and Ray Davies ruled the airwaves that sound just as timeless as the best work of Foxygen’s idols.

Though their supporting status sadly forced Foxygen to turn a deaf ear to the crowd’s pleas for an encore, headliner Unknown Mortal Orchestra was ably prepared to match the intensity of the distinguished opener. The group is structured around the funky hooks and squalling solos of electric virtuoso Ruban Nielson, the de facto leader of the band. UMO’s originated as a pet project for Nielson, also an accomplished producer, as he invited his friends to punch out laidback, R&B-inflected psychedelic rock in his home studio. The band released its self-titled debut in 2011 and its excellent follow-up, the aptly titled II, earlier this year.

Dressed in a dashiki and bathed in a dull red light, Nielson very much looked the part of psychedelic guru. The group began the set with II’s lead single, the irresistible “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” a time capsule from the era when artists like Sly & the Family Stone and Shuggie Otis were fusing soul with psychedelic sensibilities.

Beyond Nielson’s otherworldly guitar solos, microcosmic performances unto themselves, other highlights of the show included drummer Riley Geare’s explosive solo during “Secret Xtians” (clearly not one to be outshined) and a surprise cover of garage-punk martyr Jay Reatard’s “My Shadow.”

With such compelling performers as Foxygen and UMO still in operation, it is clear that we are far from the last word on psychedelic rock. | David Von Nordheim

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