British-born, L.A.-based Bonobo (aka Simon Green) played an energizing 100-minute set to a sold-out crowd Sunday night at First Avenue’s Mainroom.
Bonobo is known for lush, somewhat melancholy, downtempo albums of reliably high quality (which he’s released regularly since 2010’s Black Sands), but his performance Sunday night was notably less moody and decidedly more danceable than his recordings and his last Minneapolis performance back in 2014 (when he and his backing band played again to a sold-out crowd at First Ave).
The band took the stage to the record-skipping pulse of the title track from the new album Migration, a jazzier take than the recorded version, featuring a soaring saxophone and sputtering drums. As they headed into a buoyant, pulsating rendition of “7th Sevens,” the scalp-tingling bass caused the previous night’s confetti to fall to the Mainroom floor, a harbinger of the dance party to come.
But first: Szjerdene. The longtime Bonobo collaborator ascended to the stage for the band’s third number like a dream in a sparkling peach-colored floor-length, semi-sheer dress, and carried the new album’s standout song, “Break Apart,” originally sung and recorded by Rhye. Szjerdene’s rendition was exquisite, her phrasing sensitive to the spirit of the song, a message to one’s soon-to-be former partner at the end of a long and painful breakup. The song’s signature lines, “You’re my favorite, You’re my favorite/ But we’re phasing, But we’re phasing,” were less ethereal and articulated more clearly than the original version, conveying the heartache and lamentation of an ill-fated relationship in all its distortions and incongruity.
A substantial part of Bonobo’s live show lineup since 2013, Szjerdene routinely serves as Bonobo’s sole live vocalist, delivering songs live that were originally sung and recorded by talents which, in addition to Rhye, have included Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis, Grey Reverend, Andreya Triana, Nick Murphy (formerly known as Chet Faker), and Erykah Badu. Szjerdene brings an unrelenting elegance to the songs – generally a good thing, although her smooth, tranquil rendition of “No Reason” lacked the anxiousness and rawness of Murphy’s tenor on the recorded version, which serves the desolate lyrics of the song more effectively.
Szjerdene wasn’t the only member of the band bringing down the house. The touring lineup includes Jack Baker on drums, Ewan Wallace on guitar, Mike Lesirge on woodwinds (flute, saxophone, and clarinet), and Johnny Tomlinson on keys. A dynamic group, the ensemble expanded and contracted throughout the show, Green performing “Kong” and beginning “Outlier” completely on his own from his centerstage production cockpit. Green’s experience as a DJ has left him with an innate ability to read and foresee the energy of a room and sequence music accordingly; his well-formulated setlist engaged the audience by varying the energy, style, and instrumentation throughout the night.
Bonobo has always excelled at creating electronic sounds that fuse together various genres, even more so live than on his recordings. Live, his performance was less downtempo, and more music for the dance floor. Even the melancholy Szjerdene-starring favorite “Towers” eventually erupted into a heavy groove of dance floor proportions, booming bass and hi-hats leading the way.
Other standouts in this regard included “We Could Forever,” whose sampling of Gábor Szabó’s infectious “Sombrero Sam” theme from the Hungarian jazz guitarist’s 1970 album Magical Connection, along with a tropical, carefree flute line and incessant percussion, drove the crowd absolutely wild. The band seemed to surprise even themselves by their spirited performance of this song; keyboardist Johnny Tomlinson exchanged astonished glances with his bandmates and Green agreed as he checked in with the audience after the song, exclaiming “Wow, we seem to be achieving Friday night levels on a Sunday evening.”
Another fiery song was “Bambro Koyo Ganda,” a slow build that features vocals from the Brooklyn-based Moroccan blues collective Innov Gnawa. The album version wasn't hard to imagine as a dance floor favorite, and Sunday night’s audience seemed to feel this track deeply, clapping along up until the bass was dropped, at which point the dance floor frenzy continued.
Bambro Koyo Ganda
We Could Forever
The Crowd: Electronic music lovers with a median age of 34.
Overheard in the crowd: “I’m not even drunk yet!” said the dude who emphatically spilled an entire Diet Coke into my lap, not five minutes after doors opened. (Props to him for promptly buying me a new one, and for checking up on me later in the evening by shouting, “HOW’S YOUR DIET PEPSI?” from clear across the balcony).
Critic’s bias: Ladies, there’s never been a better time to leave your bulky handbags at home. A purse corner to the back is even worse than an elbow, IMHO.