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Primate action at Bonobo gig in Melbourne

Words by Scenewave Australia - Published on March 14, 2012

Richmond: exclusive domain of the skinny jeans, plaid shirt and flat cap. A scruffy five-day growth and an air of casual indifference are de rigueur around here. Hipster attitude and fashion ensembles aside, Richmond is also home to the Corner Hotel, an outwardly unremarkable building whose walls conceal one of Melbourne’s best medium-sized music venues. The list of musicians that have contributed to its storied history includes Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer, Elliott Smith and the White Stripes, so it was with genuine excitement that Simon Green, the English composer, producer and musician behind Bonobo, greeted the crowd at the first of two sold-out shows in Melbourne, on his debut tour of Australia.

Green has been hailed as one of the foremost artists of the ‘downtempo’ and ‘folktronica’ genres since his debut album under the Bonobo moniker Animal Magic was released in 2001. His music is a captivating blend of live instrumentation, shimmering samples and haunting melodies driven by propulsive beats and angular, syncopated basslines. It’s taken 12 years for Bonobo to visit Australia but the wait has been worth it, with Green assembling and leading a crack band of musos for the tour, including vocal collaborator Andreya Triana, whose contributions were a highlight of the performance.

After the warm introduction Green and his bandmates immediately slid into one of their trademark lilting grooves, adopting a no-nonsense approach that let the music do the talking, rather than attempt to engage the crowd with awkward or trite conversation. In any case the music was all the talking that was needed, with the signature Bonobo meld of organic melodic riffs laid over trip hop rhythms not only accurately reproduced in a live setting, but imbued with an added warmth and fullness of sound that only enhanced its beguiling nature. Given the typically dense layering of Green’s compositions the live performance was all the more impressive, as Green and his fantastically talented woodwind offsider – who deftly swapped between flute, tenor sax and clarinet throughout the night – showed that samples and loops were merely the scenic backdrop to the sonic textures created by the live instruments.

It’s testament to the skill of Green’s compositions that he manages to weave together such disparate musical influences as jazz, classical, hip-hop, Eastern folk and drum and bass without ever losing sight of the soulful sound at the core of the Bonobo aesthetic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crowd so enthusiastically embracing the sound of a clarinet or flute. But it wasn’t all about the instruments, as singer Andreya Triana showed Bonobo’s music works even better when matched with some smoky vocals and some nicely done live sampling. At one point Green and the band left Triana alone on stage to play out a solo interlude in which her beatboxing and layered vocals had the crowd in thrall.

Consisting mainly of material from the breakthrough album of 2006 Days to Come and last year’s critically acclaimed Black Sands, the set from Green and co. was a dazzling aural feast which spanned a wide range of sonic styles, often within the same song. A particular highlight was the extended jam of the banging track ‘Kiara’, combining a soaring Cantonese string refrain with a bouncy Flying Lotus-style beat, which prompted some energetic dancing from the crowd and segued into a memorable solo from the supremely funky drummer. There was impressive musicianship on display from all of the band members, not least of which was Green himself, who was hopping about from bass guitar to xylophone to the sampler with great dexterity. The crowd reserved the most enthusiastic applause when vocalist Triana joined the band, making the lilting, lullaby-like ‘Stay the same’ and the ambient dubstep of ‘Eyesdown’ standout tracks.

It seems that with his use of a live band as his musical foundation and clever use of samples and electronic flourishes, Green is determined to make Bonobo shows more than just the DJ dance set many other artists of his ilk (Moby, Mr Scruff, Quantic, Steve Aoki) seem content to serve up as live music these days. Judging by the reception of the crowd at the Corner Hotel, the hipsters appreciate the extra effort.

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