Since dropping his first track “Terrapin” in 2001, electronic tastemaker Bonobo has steadily embarked on a wildly-successful professional journey that has seen him deservedly anointed to the upper crust of the game. The globe-trotting project is the brainchild of UK-based multi-instrumentalist/producer Simon Green; among the pioneers first responsible for the proliferation of electronic producers conducting their own live ensembles performing original compositions. Touring behind his latest LP Fragments, released earlier this year, Bonobo’s live band rolled into the East Bay for a packed engagement at the ever-majestic Fox Theater.
A five-time Grammy-nominated artist, the British-born Bonobo often traverses topography akin to post-trip-hop producers of the late 1990s, like Vienna’s Kruder & Dorfmeister and France’s St. Germain. Over the years Green’s craft and creativity evolved beyond many of his peers, as has his output; Fragments is his seventh full-length album to go along with countless collaborations, remixes, and compilation contributions. A road warrior to boot, Bonobo has traveled all over the world blessing up dancefloors from behind the decks, as well as leading an ever-changing band tasked with translating his tasteful native tongues by way of horns, strings, keys, and drums.
Green has been celebrated for his brilliantly-blended potions of nu-jazz, downtempo, chill-house, electro-soul, and shoegaze balladry mixed with elements of international influence. Few—if any—electronic artists of this ilk have wielded his combination of cache, avant-garde, and accessibility to maintain this level of staying power Bonobo has displayed.
Feted as a gifted innovator since 2003’s seminal Dial M For Monkey, the Ninja Tune stalwart broke through the underground with 2010’s Black Sands, and then captured the zeitgeist in 2013 with The North Borders. Both of those albums were supported with groundbreaking live band world tours, including a pair of visits to Bear Creek Music Festival at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Florida, where this writer first encountered Green and his collective a dozen years ago. The DJ live-band thing was in its nascent stage, and what Bonobo ceremoniously unveiled would quite literally change the game.
Before long, many DJs began bringing a squad to the stage. In the interim decade, Green and company have repeatedly set—then raised—the bar for live band electronica, reverse engineering his organic creations in the moment into magnificent readings rich in color and emotion.
In the live element, Bonobo’s lush, nuanced songcraft comes aflame, fully fleshed out with deluxe accouterments. The tremendous acoustics at the Fox juxtaposed with the iridescent instrumentation made for a high-fidelity concert experience on a warm October East Bay evening.
Grammy winner and fellow Englishman Tourist, who has provided direct support for Bonobo in years past, again warmed things up early with an appetizer set as the masses styled and profiled their way into the historic cathedral.
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Bonobo manned the center of the stage on an assortment of production equipment, as well as played bass guitar on several cuts. The ensemble flanked him in both directions, including a drummer, synth player, traditional keyboardist, guitar, woodwind and brass, percussion, and a four-piece string section way out on the stage right wing.
A large digital screen mapping visuals framed the stage and the players, who performed shrouded in shadows and silhouette. The contingent opened up with a trifecta of tracks from Fragments in the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson collab “Polyghost”, the popular “Rosewood”, and then chased with “Counterpoint”. Bonobo presented sleek confidence early and often, if the music did lean decidedly more chill than much of his earlier work.
Soon the group would be joined by vocalist Nicole Miglis (Hundred Waters), who took the stage in regal, festive attire and mystically crooned a pair of numbers; “Surface” (2017’s Migration) and “Tides” (Fragments) that kept things chillin’ in the cool-out chamber. Occasionally, the newer cuts came off a bit shiny, subdued, or too polished, music geared for lifestyle commercials on television more than the gritty, sweaty club culture that made him.
Still, there were numerous trademark world influences embedded in the compositions, from Asia to Africa, Berlin to Britain, and even Brooklyn, occasionally veering from the conventional to something that leaned exotic. Eventually, the thunderous 303 acid burps and bulbous basslines of yesteryear would return as Bonobo began to reach further back into his beloved batch of bangers. The hardest hitters of the set were the precious few that drew on the deeper annals, much to the thrill of the many longtime fans that had packed the Fox Theater and made their approval known.
The most feverish dancing was done to the classic jams, such as the Moroccan-flavored favorite “Bambro Koyo Ganda” (Migration), a Gnawa mashup that got the people movin’ and groovin’ way up on the balcony. A translucent reading of “Kiara” (Black Sands) felt like a time machine to the Amphitheater Stage at Bear Creek so many moons ago; celestial sounds imbued with a profound emotional depth that eludes so many of Green’s contemporaries in this sonic space.
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Maybe the evening’s peak, the enveloping bounce of “Cirrus”, a highwater mark from the masterful The North Borders, really flexed both the instrumental alchemy and emotional resonance that has long defined this live band project. Similarly, the 2019 single “Linked” kept the asses shaking, flirting with elements of garage house that displayed Bonobo’s late-career shift into more grown n’ sexy tempos and textures.
Green would lead the troupe through a pair of Fragments joints in “Age of Phase” and “Otomo” to close the set. The people vocally requested more music, and after a brief pause to regroup, the collective re-took the stage for a two-song encore. Bonobo and Co. unveiled “Break Apart”, originally sung by Rhye on Migration but on this night was interpolated by the ravishing Miglis and her ethereal tones. “Kerala”, culled from the same album, brought things to an exuberant, intoxicating close with chants, throwback Chicago-house pianos, and a full band crescendo that sent the masses streaming blissfully into the streets, thoroughly fragmented.
With this country’s infrastructure and financial solvency in a current state of decay, the resulting trickle-down economics have resulted in detrimental effects on internationally-touring bands, especially ensembles with many members and/or a large production rig and crew. As such, word on the street is this will likely be Bonobo live band’s final U.S. tour of this nature. Given that your humble narrator’s good fortune to bear witness to each of Green’s evolutions in organic electronic soundscapes (2010, 2013, 2017) it was only fitting to enjoy what may prove to be the closing chapter for Bonobo live band.
Setlist: Bonobo | Fox Theater | Oakland, CA | 10/20/22
Set: Polyghost, Rosewood, Counterpart, Surface, Tides, Kiara, Bambro Koyo Ganda, Cirrus, Outlier, ATK, From You, No Reason, Linked, Age of Phase, Otomo
Encore: Break Apart > Kerala