Before most concerts start, I’m cautiously optimistic about the experience. With Bonobo, before attending his November 15 show at Grand Central, I knew songs off of most of his albums and enjoyed them, but I wasn’t sure how well they could be recreated live.
My expectations were blown clear out of the water with this concert. To say he was excellent is a massive understatement.
“I’ve been doing this 15 years,” said Bonobo, real name Simon Green, when the show started, “and I’ve never made it down to Miami.” The show that followed made up for all the lost time. For his first song, he started off strong by leading with a rousing version of “Cirrus.” Green, the songwriter and leader, mostly played bass.
I was curious before the show as to how well the touring musicians would be able to play the music in a live setting. As it turned out, the level of musicianship in Bonobo’s group is quite stunning. Vocalist Szjerdene (pronounced “Jhur-DEEN”) was powerful and soulful, even on songs from 2010’s Black Sands that were originally sung by Andreya Triana. And on the keys, Johnny Tomlinson’s electric piano tone was the sort of thing audio engineers dream about.
But the real powerhouses of the evening were Jack Baker on drums and Mike Lesirge playing various woodwinds. Baker’s drums were smooth and confident all night, with absolutely impeccable timing. Lesirge, from his first feature of the night playing tenor saxophone on “Stay the Same,” was jazzy and cool, like a sexier, deeper Paul Desmond. The two showed off in the middle of the amazing “El Toro,” where they each had an unaccompanied solo. Baker’s drum solo was intricate and impressive. He played so freeform but at the same time so in control that it sounded like he could easily lapse into playing Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” at any second. On tenor saxophone, Lesirge channeled his inner John Coltrane with a two minute solo featuring ample use of a loop pedal. His tone and use of harmony were beautiful, to say the least.
There were no real low moments in the show, which went from good to better to incredible. The band left midway thorough for Bonobo to play “Kiara” alone, which he did deftly. They slowly filtered back as the song went on through multiple cycles of buildup and release, finally culminating in Lesirge playing the song’s main riff on clarinet. Nice, too, was “First Fires,” which featured opening act Chet Faker singing the hook instead of the album’s Grey Reverend*.
“We Could Forever” was also a highlight, especially in how danceable it was live. Remember, Bonobo’s recorded material is strictly downtempo. But in a live setting, the song turns into an excellent dance track, one with tasteful but well-thought out uses of jazz flute. It even had a bass drop, which was totally unexpected but, oddly, completely appropriate at the time.
Two hours passed far too fast, and the after the band’s excellent rendition of “The Keeper” during the encore, it was but time to leave. At the concert’s end, Bonobo said that it was is favorite show of the tour so far (which has been going on since March) and that he’d be sure to be back. After tonight’s show, here’s hoping that he keeps that promise.
*It should also be noted that Faker ended his opening set with a surprisingly great cover of “No Diggity.” It ended up sounding almost like a soulful Flying Lotus song.