Bonobo, Jazz Café, London
Friday 30 January 2004
Although one wag in tonight's crowd suggests that the name Bonobo might concern the singer from U2's armpits, it's actually taken from a close cousin of the chimpanzee. To his mum, Bonobo is known simply as Simon Green. Granted, as given names go, it's hardly exotic, but "Simon Green" suits him. When he shuffles on to the small Jazz Café stage, clutching his bass guitar, he looks like a more street-wise Colin Firth; his buttoned-up short-sleeved shirt offset by baggy skater jeans and scruffy trainers.
Despite appearances, Green is not lacking in imagination. As both his albums - 2000's Animal Magic and last summer's Dial "M" for Murder - prove, he is a master of laptop electro wizardry, sumptuous downtempo rhythms and smooth twisting grooves, the sort of lush coffee-table beats that ad men seem to find alluring. Until now, Green has preferred staying cocooned in his adopted city of Brighton to venturing out on tour. When recording, Green is a solitary beast. He plays everything himself - from sitars and samples to sax - and then cuts and sews these rich sounds together into luscious aural blankets dense with life. But tonight, for the first time, Green takes Bonobo on the road with a six-piece band in tow to help bring his dreamy soundscapes to life.
From the audience's perspective, there's something odd about instrumental music of this sort being produced live. On stage, there is plenty to look at: the band include a drummer, a cellist, three tiers of keyboards, a saxophonist and an effects man surrounded by electronic gadgetry. But without a front man, there is no focal point. Quirky, abstract visuals projected on to the screen behind the band are hypnotically distracting, but at times they are not enough. Some numbers are left floundering. The jazzy "Silver" loses its melancholy and "The Plug" its sadness. Without their emotional depth, the songs are nothing more than pretty sonic wallpaper.
Thankfully, such moments are rare. More often, the live band bring energy to Green's ambient music. The instruments blend together, weaving tapestries of sound, while the pace of the music changes constantly. Softly building and jaggedly breaking down, it shifts relentlessly. The sultry "Nothing Owed" is transformed by fairground-tinged riffs, while the slow "Sicilian" is gorgeously emotive, its bright, birdlike samples toying with coy sax riffs and flooding the room with a wistful bitter-sweetness.
When Green leaves the stage, the venue is filled with writhing bodies infected by his strange and beautiful melodies. Bonobo has proved he is one seriously funky monkey.
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