Bonobo, review: now they know how many grooves it takes to fill the Albert Hall

·3-min read
Bonobo at the Royal Albert Hall - Michal Augustini/Shutterstock
Bonobo at the Royal Albert Hall - Michal Augustini/Shutterstock

Clubby grooves and pulsing lights aren’t what you’d usually expect to find at the Royal Albert Hall on a Monday evening, but this was the scene that heralded Bonobo’s first UK concert in four years – the first of his five-night residency at this grand venue. Bonobo (aka British-born, globally-trawling musician/producer/DJ Simon Green) first emerged at the end of the 1990s, and he remains a curious creature: he’s somehow both anonymous and anthemic, and his music feels by turns reflective and ravey, across a now extensive catalogue of acclaimed albums and collaborations.

The opening night drew from all of these qualities. Bonobo and his multi-instrumental ensemble (including string, woodwind and brass players, and wispy-toned regular vocalist Nicole Miglis) appeared on a mostly shadowy stage beneath vivid projected panoramas of land, sea, and sky, occasionally emerging from the haze. Bonobo still exuded a sense of presence outside the conventional spotlight, and he and his band possessed plenty of muso flair, prompting regular roars of approval from the predominantly thirty- and fortysomething crowd.

The set list centred on Bonobo’s seventh album, Fragments, which was released early this year. This collection’s moods and musical flavours feel inspired by Green’s own perspectives of a life on the move, and its scattershot elements – jazz, downtempo melodies, house, electro-soul, proggy riffs and international inspirations – were deftly melded here into a slick continuous live mix. The ambient groove and romantic R&B vocal hook (“I won’t leave you, not this time”) of Rosewood eased us into a blend of stomping instrumentals (Otomo) and emotive sentiments – Tides, featuring US poet/singer Jamila Woods, was a particularly elegant highlight.

Bonobo often occupies similar territory to jazz-driven club artists and 1990s-formed peers such as his Ninja Tune labelmates The Cinematic Orchestra and French producer St Germain, though he has also progressively fine-tuned his musical excursions. This was an impressively assured and sleek performance, demonstrating how he has moved from sample-based early productions into fully-fleshed live instrumentation.

If anything, the arrangements perhaps felt a bit too polished and polite, pitched more towards mainstream film and TV soundtrack features than really sweaty club culture. Meanwhile, the familiar cocktail of “world music” influences (fleeting bits of Eastern Europe, North Africa, Southern Asia) seemed undeniably enthusiastic but also tended towards the exotic. But there was no denying the elated spirit emanating from both performers and the brightly illuminated sea of revellers, and Bonobo did push the venue’s genteel sound system to the max – it might be more traditionally associated with classical symphonies, but on Monday the basslines and 303 acid squelches still rippled satisfyingly through the soles of your feet.

Bonobo at the Royal Albert Hall - Michal Augustini/Shutterstock
Bonobo at the Royal Albert Hall - Michal Augustini/Shutterstock

The biggest-hitting numbers also drew on Bonobo’s back catalogue, to the thrill of his many long-time fans in the crowd; he’s established a solid repertoire of material to play around with throughout his concert residency, and stand-out classics for this opening night included the swooning Kiara (taken from his 2010 album Black Sands), and a range of blissed-out bangers from his Grammy-nominated 2017 LP Migrations – notably, the Moroccan gnawa mash-up on Bambro Koyo Ganda.

The encore ended things on a definite high, with the stirring chants and loops of Kerala segueing into old-school house piano refrains from beaming keyboardist Johnny Tomlinson – ensuring that even those audience members in the comfy seats were up for dancing into the week. It all made for an immaculate, yet persuasively excitable experience, floating confidently between the packed dance floor and the chill-out chamber.

At the Royal Albert until Fri; bonobomusic.com

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