Bonobo's 'Migration' Tour Is an Exercise in Range

Photo: Ivan Selimbegovic

Famed British electronic music composer Bonobo pulls off another triumphant reinvention and wows the crowd in a packed Budapest Park.

It's no coincidence that Simon Green is often hailed as one of the most relevant electronic artists of our time by critics and listeners alike. It's been 17 years since the 42-year-old signed to Ninja Tune under the moniker Bonobo and embarked on a restless journey toward transforming the way common folk listen to and perceive electronic music. At first a trip-hop aficionado with an inclination toward downtempo and a penchant for broken beats, jazzy and funky overtones, over time Green became mercurial, venturing into more overt jazz arrangements, world music, ambient experiments, even delivering pieces suitable for a chamber orchestra.

An all-around adept composer, Green quickly rose to international fame and won a cult following, especially because of his impressive live shows with full bands where few, if any, melodies and beats aren't performed on the spot. Seldom a Top 20 artist, he nevertheless managed to permeate the mainstream with the unique quality of his music, reinvigorating the perception of everyday electronica soundtracks in the process. Today he routinely sells out large venues and is featured at the top of the bill at festivals worldwide.

Bonobo's sixth studio album, Migration, released in 2017, marks a shift in structure from the radio-friendly vocal tunes of The North Borders, and is Bonobo's first effectively ambient work, considerably more downtempo than most his previous music. Received well by the critics, it was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 60th Grammy Awards, while the single "Bambro Koyo Ganda" (Feat. Innov Gnawa) was nominated for Best Dance Recording. The eponymous, mammoth tour, kicked off in February 2017 and to date counts about 115 shows, with about 30 more to go.

Photo: Ivan Selimbegovic

On May 23 this year it was Budapest's turn to bear witness to a Bonobo live show, abundant with new material. The vast Budapest Park, Hungary's largest open-air clubbing and concert venue, is actually a gorgeous construction within a park, just outside the city center. Engulfing some 11 hectares of open space, it's a well-divided and highly practical entertainment venue, with seated terraces at the front on both sides of the stage, large screen, stands and a food court in the back. With a capacity of about 4,000, it's the ideal size - big enough to provide an immersive concert experience, yet intimate enough for every visitor to be able to see and hear the performer well, standing or seated.

The opening act, Poté, is a one-person show, somewhat in the image of James Blake, though live, musically he would fall closer to Bonobo. The 22-year-old Londoner is a fresh name on Resident Advisor, a polyvalent, and a capable live performer, handling beats, melodies, percussions, and vocals himself. The Blake reference comes from his tunes having a distinct haunting quality despite being beat-heavy.

Around 8.15 PM, the lights go out, though it's still early dusk. Bonobo comes on stage and positions himself between several mixers, while capacity crowd flocks in front of him. The show kicks of with "Migration" and a band of six emerges, among them keyboardist, drummer, guitarist, and a brass trio with trumpet, trombone, and saxophone. The sparse piano chords are an appropriate introduction for what on paper is supposed to be an ambient tune. However, the introductory melody does not progress, but rather stays in a manic plateau of repetition, until the drums and saxophone explode and the composition expansively comes into its own. It takes those two and a half minutes for Green and his band to expose and impose themselves as the versatile musicians they are, about to deliver a bombastic show.

"7th Sevens", another new track, is a shoutout to Burial, featuring several overlapping melodies and rhythms, gliding along wild percussions. The tone shifts gloriously once Szjerdene steps on stage. Bonobo's frequent vocal collaborator, responsible for many of the most memorable moments of his triumphant The North Borders tour several years ago, is pure magic to listen to. Barefooted, donning a plain, sleeveless salmon dress with a single set of frills just above the waist, she is an almost fairy-like presence, light in appearance but strong in delivery. She sings on "Towers", one of Bonobo's most glorious songs (off The North Borders), for which she provided the lyrics herself. The hypnotic, looping guitar provides a delicate backdrop for Szjerdene's quiet lament over a relationship gone wrong due to people growing apart, the melody taking the backseat during her luscious vocal delivery - until Green barges in on bass, that is, intensifying the rhythm and eliciting a singalong.

Photo: Ivan Selimbegovic

The show continues in an equally unpredictable fashion - the subdued but beat-heavy excerpts from Migration mix seamlessly with Bonobo's earlier, more visceral work. Green knows that live it is the faster, multilayered songs which work best, in no small part thanks to his outstanding band, who leave no melodic thread underperformed and almost no sound echoing on playback. "Cirrus" is always a sublime listening experience, a smooth, almost silky mosaic of percussions accompanying a xylophone loop. As with most tunes Bonobo performs live, this one also bursts into loudness without a crescendo, the slide bass enhancing its "space house" feel and prompting the crowds to dance. "Kong", a true masterpiece off of Black Sands and the highlight of most shows, here somewhat drowns its perky guitar with a more forceful beat, but the audience is elated and as responsive as ever. "Bambro Koyo Granda" and other Migration songs are also uniformly well-received, especially the upbeat single "Kerala", likely because of its movement-inducing quality.

For unknown reasons, the magnificent "Antenna", one of the best new songs, is left out. While "Black Sands" is sorely missed as a closer, the electric "Know You" is a fitting ending to the astounding 90-minute long display of musical diversity. Confetti erupts all over the place and the crowd bids a heartfelt goodbye to the producer extraordinaire. Luckily, the very next day it was announced that Bonobo will also be performing at Sziget on Thursday, August 9, so whoever missed seeing him live locally will have the chance to correct the mistake soon enough.

See Bonobo's remaining European tour dates on his official website.

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