Bonobo – Live Review, 4/3/14 @ O2 Academy
I enter the O2 Academy at what I think is midway through supporting act Catching Flies’ set. Hazy, converging blue and yellow lights partially obscure the man on the decks, whilst slightly muffled beats manage to pulse through the chatting crowd. The sound is relaxed, with echoes of the act that the we’ve all arrived to see; layered vocals, silky strings and soft horns add texture to an otherwise subtle arrangement. Positioned at the back of a substantial turnout, the full impact of the music is somewhat buffered, and as I meander towards the front the set comes to a modest close.
All are itching for the arrival of what has become a headline figure in this particular breed of electronic music. We are teased by drum raps as the stage prepares itself for the multi-instrumental performance that is to ensue. The 9pm start time is pushed unsurprisingly backwards, leaving more time for floral-shirted, facial-haired fans to drip feed towards the front. The crowd is otherwise heterogenous, a testimony to the fact that Bonobo’s target audience is distinctly non-specific. Yet there is unanimous excitement as the transition into the opening song is set underway, keys bellowing from the speakers with a brief mic introduction. A familiar thud is accompanied by cascading, oblong white lights across the backdrop, whilst our frontman (alias Simon Green) takes the centre, guitar hovering over mixing desk. Bonobo’s trademark sound is, of course, peppered with the efforts of several extra hands, not forgetting the clarinet that is at this point put in prime view at the front of the stage. It isn’t long before the effortless slide into the next track, bringing with it the rare jewel that is Szjerdene. Her crisp vocals pierce the air as ‘Towers’ begins, leaving a visibly stunned crowd stood in awe. Commanding us even through her graceful movements, her presence is something that cannot be imitated on record. It is a reminder that the merging textures of Bonobo’s mixes are individually clarified in the live setting.
We receive some engagement from Green, who gives an obligatory flattering to all those attending. It’s been ten years, he reminds us, since this all properly began. This is perhaps an apt preamble for ‘Stay the Same’, whose lyrics speak of the inevitability of change. Yet it is ‘Prelude’ that really takes us back to 2010’s Black Sands, generating an anticipated thrilled cheer. Padded with horns and an impressive array of live strings, the all-too-familiar rhythmic thud segues into ‘Kiara’, arguably the signature sound of the album. The band swing towards to The North Borders album – the ignition for the tour – with a rendition of ‘Cirrus’, only to pull back comfortably into the somewhat jazzier tones of ‘Kong’. The transitions serve to throw us peaceably off balance, their favoured interludes melding glitches with glossy keys. This all appears to be part of what makes both the albums and the live performance seemingly cohesive affairs without becoming monotonous. Green has reserved us, however, another gem in the form of Grey Reverend, who he introduces as a cohort from across the pond. He is the vocal talent behind ‘First Fires’, the opening track from the latest album. Acoustic guitar in arm, his wholesome vox and heart-wrenching strings are brought together, the rest of the band calm until a slow groove kicks in with twinkling sidenotes.
What comes together as a contained sound on record appears to be made up of components ad infinitum when presented before an audience. It is, arguably, the choice of using an (incredibly talented) live band that proves most impressive. The overall blend of each element leaves the possibility for certain extended solos – notably, sax and drums – to appear self-indulgent, but these ultimately show the extraordinary talent of the collaborators that Green has united. Though it makes it nigh-on impossible to distinguish where Bonobo “the act” actually begins and ends, the performance puts Green’s craftsmanship under the magnifying glass and shows just how much effort it takes to create and perfect the finished product.