As the curtain rose, and the bass knocked through the First Avenue mainroom, a sheet of light and fog materialized in front of the sold-out crowd. It seemed almost supernatural, like a signal of an approaching god. As Bonobo's kit was lit from below, the audience reacted as if Simon Greene, the multi-talented electronic artist from England, was a deity in the flesh.
The reaction of some in the audience would suggest otherwise, but Bonobo and his live band did not produce miracles onstage, and his enthusiastic followers were often distracted. The crew that sold out the Sydney Opera House earlier in their worldwide tour did not disappoint. The performance was unfailingly creative and occasionally approached the divine -- though they were sometimes brought down to earth. His combination of the intricate looping song structure of electronic music with the energy and life of live instrumentation made for a night that never failed to be interesting.
After a long and tense buildup, Bonobo, alone on stage, launched into "Cirrus," one of the signature songs from his new album. It was an archetypical track, starting with a simple sequence of ringing thumb piano notes that eventually, and seamlessly, formed the foundation of a much larger and more complex groove. As the sound built, the rest of the band took the stage, starting with the drummer, Jack Baker, who was a dominant force throughout the night. Baker and his kick drum underpinned the danceable groove of the song in its live arrangement, which was more complicated, high energy and dissonant than it is on the record. Bonobo on the drum pad played well off of his analog counterpart.
Greene picked up a bass guitar after he set up the synth loops for the next track, "Sapphire." It showcased another element of Bonobo's sound -- delicate vocal samples and twinkling instrumentals laid over driving drum and bass rhythms. Unfortunately, this was an element that occasionally struggled with the transfer to live performance. The understated sounds and the melancholy affect took a back seat to the beat of the song. Particularly, the clarinet was swallowed up in this one, not that anyone in the crowd seemed to mind.
The final piece of the puzzle was introduced next, on "Towers," as Szjerdene took the stage, a vision in white. Her ethereal stage presence added a human element to the spacey atmosphere of the band. Unfortunately, her delicate and subtle voice was, at least in this track, also secondary to the foundation of the song. It didn't help that she was fighting through a bad case of laryngitis that kept her out of the encore. However, when she performed "First Fires" later in the set, Szjerdene was able to be the star that she is, standing out over a dialed back and relaxed arrangement mostly made up of keyboard tones. This mournful song about regaining something thought to be lost forever came during a subdued portion of the set, and there was more than a little restless chatter in the crowd -- hopefully, they were listening anyway.
That kind of disconnection from the audience happened a couple of times, mostly during the more minimalist moments of the show. In a way, it's understandable -- listening to Bonobo's albums, its hard to imagine his looping compositions, which often change gradually over the course of an entire song and lack the dynamic "drops" of other electronic based music (thank God), providing that much to latch onto at a live show. However, the live band and the light show, along with the live arrangements for maximum energy, more than overcame this most of the time. [page]
"Kiari," off of 2010's Black Sands, provides one of the best examples of this adaptation. The song is driven by the sounds of electric violin, and the heartbeat cadence of a kick drum underlies all of. It's a high-energy track, but not a banger. Not so live. Bonobo's bass line was turned to the level of wobbling distortion, and the song ended on a strong crescendo punctuated by a flash of light and roars from the appreciative crowd.
"Minneapolis, are you still with me?" Bonobo asked at his first real pause, about a third of the way through. The answer was a resounding yes.
The light show motifs changed from the simple and bombastic light and darkness of earlier in the show to warm consistent colors, even at one point a light lavender color. The music seemed to match this transition, becoming a little less bombastic and more cohesive -- "First Fires" came during this part of the show. "Ketto" was a particular highlight. Like a lot of Bonobo's music, it's almost spooky. The simple, tense piano loop of about six syncopated rising notes that gradually fall away, overlaid on ambient animalistic noises and deep synth tones, make it seem as if the song is heading into the unknown. And it is surprising -- the saxophone featured on this song was strong and distinct without seeming dominant or out of place, all elements of the band working together. The track ended in a rare moment of silence and darkness.
During this middle stretch, the crowd was appreciative, but seemed to drift a little. That didn't last long, however, as Bonobo took the stage himself, signaling the start of the hard-hitting home stretch. "Recurring" began with him laying down simple thumb piano notes. As the loops filled in, the rest of the players took the stage. Eventually, Bonobo picked up his bass and the song really started to cook, eventually driving forward with the whole band working in unison. After, the band jumped into the highlight of the night, "We Could Forever." The synthesized steel drum loops and the keyboard combined to create an almost tropical rhythm, and the real highlight was the flute. The flutist played with gusto, shredding as only a gentle woodwind can shred, culminating in a bombastic solo punctuated by full-stop break immediately before.
The show hardly let up as it came to its conclusion. There was a drum and saxophone solo that constituted a song in itself. The set ended as it began, rising into noise and light that remained throughout the interim before the encore -- only one song, an instrumental. Bonobo beamed over the adoring crowd, which he interacted with very minimally, and said it was "absolutely pleasant to be here." No arguments here. Critic's notebook: Personal bias: I listen to Bonobo a lot, but my admiration for him was far outshone by most in the audience.
The crowd: Young, enthusiastic, easily distracted, eager to share what was going on to social media.
Random notebook dump: Probably the only time there's ever been something you could call a flute drop.
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