Bonobo with El Ten Eleven
On Saturday an electronic music show was scheduled at the Fonda. Instead, a jazz concert broke out. And it was awesome. New York-based Ninja Tune producer Simon Green, the man behind Bonobo, has been evolving away from his downtempo electronica roots for awhile now. His last three albums, including this year's luminous The North Borders, have used more and more live instruments and vocals, adding textures and layers of sound rarely heard alongside programmed beats since the early '00s heyday of nu jazz.
In concert, with a 10-piece backing band, Green brought those textures into the foreground, transforming his jewel-box compositions into extended, fiery jam sessions with live drums, vocals, sax and flute solos and even a damn string section. I'd call it “livetronica” but a) that term kinda sucks and b) it's already been claimed by shitty synth-based jam bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9.
Local duo El Ten Eleven set the tone with an opening set that, if you closed your eyes, frequently sounded like it was coming off a Korg and an MPC pad. It was, however, the product of energetic live drumming and the dazzlingly intricate playing of Kristian Dunn, who used a double-neck guitar/bass and a buffet of loop pedals to weave his inventive riffs into Explosions in the Sky-like epics of blissed-out post-rock.
“Everything you hear is being done live,” Dunn explained to the audience at one point. “There's no laptops or click tracks.” Then, no doubt remembering who he was opening for, he politely added, “Not that there's anything wrong with that.”
Green does include a laptop in his stage gear, and it figured prominently in his opening track, “Cirrus,” whose gamelan palette of bells and chimes would have been difficult to replicate otherwise. By the next track, “Sapphire,” most of Green's mini-army of backing musicians had taken the stage, Green had strapped on a bass guitar, and the show was off to explore that mysterious and fertile land somewhere between jazz, soul and electronic music.
The crowd hung on every note, whether it was squeezed out of a live sax, Green's trusty laptop, or the beguiling vocal cords of the band's singer, Szjerdene, who drifted on and offstage as needed. (Despite some rumors, Erykah Badu, a scheduled guest at the band's San Francisco stop, failed to appear.)
The show's most amazing moment happened, ironically, when Green wasn't even on the stage. While he and the rest of the band took a break, drummer Jack Baker uncorked an extended solo that was, in defiance of over 40 years of boring, self-indulgent drum solos, actually fun to watch. He was soon joined by saxophonist Mike Lesirge, and then shit really got crazy. Lesirge ran his horn through some kind of magical dubstep pedal and turned a simple sax-and-drums duet into an epic of wobbling bass and screaming-dinosaur riffs. I thought the crowd would go nuts, and a few pot-smoke-enshrouded groups did, but most of them clearly had no idea what was going on.
After the dubstep-saxophone interlude, Green and his mates returned to wrap things up with a crowd-pleasing set of highlights from the recently released North Borders. Half of the hour-and-45-minute set focused on Bonobo's latest, and with good reason: It's easily the best work of Green's career, confidently borrowing some of the most interesting elements from today's electronic scene — a Burial-like filtered soul vocal here, a brittle Flying Lotus-like beat there — and folding them into his own distinctive sound.
The first time I saw Green in Los Angeles, he was playing a weeknight DJ set at King King, possibly by choice but more likely because he couldn't yet afford to tour the West Coast with a live band. Just six years later, he's selling out the Fonda with a 10-piece mini-orchestra and a fancy backdrop of LED screens that wouldn't have looked out of place at a Muse concert. It's hard to say how much this has to do with the growing popularity of the so-called EDM scene in general — but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the twentysomething bros in flat-brimmed baseball caps circle dancing in front of me were not listening to Bonobo back in 2003.
Personal bias: Back when I DJed a lot of downtempo sets in the early '00s, Bonobo tracks were among my favorite secret weapons for turning the chillout room into a dance party.
The crowd: Eastside hipsters, aging ex-ravers, Low End Theory kids and Hollywood club dudes in untucked dress shirts. Designer baseball caps, animal-print T-shirts and medical-grade weed.
Random notebook dump: Even a really good jazz flute solo is hard to take seriously when you just watched Anchorman the day before.
Bonobo set list:
Stay the Same
Heaven for the Sinner
We Could Forever
Sax/drum dubstep duet