Simon Green, or more fittingly the sonic behemoth that has come to be called Bonobo, has been a truly unique and inspirational fixture in the music world for years and has consistently adapted and evolved his sound, gathering passing trends and brewing them into an idiosyncratic powerhouse of a back-catalogue.
2013's The North Borders showcased his ability to compose organic, almost classically arranged pieces (with moments harkening back to 2006's Days To Come) such as the hauntingly beautiful Pieces, whilst still showcasing his ability to effortlessly craft floor-fillers in the form of tunes like Cirrus, Emkay and one of my personal favorites Ten Tigers. Bonobo's newest EP, Flashlight, is set to drop in December. The work released so far tells of a man searching for his roots. Content with the grandeur of his last release it's good to hear he is not afraid to switch things up. With a new era for the act looming, this seems like a perfect time to catch the tail end of the North Borders band set-up, and where better then Manchester's Warehouse Project back at its home, Store Street.
Having checked out the Victoria Warehouse venue frequently in the past few years, I had heard so many stories of the original Store Street spot, and how its smaller space made for a much more personal experience. The towering brick arches and minimal lighting felt so much more suited to the WHP vibe than Victoria's open, almost corporate dancefloor. The organisers did a fantastic job of tricking you, every now and then, into forgetting this was a big money event. My first stop was the booming bass silo of room 2 to check out Manchester's Werkha, an up-and-coming producer whose grip on afrobeat / funk inspired rhythms fused with Cashmere Cat esque dripping synths and kicks are something you need to witness. The blue LED ripples emanating from behind the DJ perfectly accented the clicks and pops of the smooth, rhythmic beats. You could almost see the kick form in the center and slowly pass through the crowd to the back of the twisted tunnel. The highlight was the warm buzzing synths, over-layed with the watery submerged beats of his out-right banger Cube & Puzzle, watching as the backdrop slowly synced with the beat and resonated through the revelers. Definitely watch out for his batch of new material ready to drop through Tru Thoughts in 2015.
Werkha had owned room 2, it was time to check out what the main stage had to offer. London born Gold Panda felt so at home in the catacombs of Store Street. His set seemed to take the crowd on a sonic journey, the metallic, glitchy soundscapes creating an air of the organic passing through a vortex of electronic witchcraft. From the opening tunes, high-end sirens and fuzzed out synths called out to the sea of flailing arms like a queen bee to her workers, every face stuck, transfixed on the producer bathed in a tense red glow. As the set ramped up I noticed how the loping beats, drifting in and out of their predicted tempos, messing with the heads of the audience, trying so hard to match their feet to the falling kicks. As the drops became clearer, and percussion started to adhere to that churning, side-chained throb that hurtles through your chest, some clicky vinyl pops fluttered through the room. They seemed to sync with the dripping brick way up on the roof, completely absorbing your mind into the beat. The synths became a high-frequency scatter, reminiscent of the rain outside, and the lighting, now an aggressive yellow, felt like shards of lightning. Gold Panda had created a storm in this space with heavy, ringing kicks acting as the thunder and a dark progressive backbone keeping the feet moving.
As soon as the first glimpse of Bonobo and the band became apparent, towers of humans formed against the smoke and brick. It's safe to say I have never seen so many bodies trying to squeeze into a space. Everybody was shoulder to shoulder, yet nobody cared, comfort did not matter when music like this was to be heard. As a lone Simon Green dropped into the glistening, spherical intro of Cirrus, the minimalist white blocks of the backdrop acted as a stark contrast to the eerie cream glow silhouetting the band. The whole room surged like a summer festival, only in a dark, dingy crypt. I had seen Bonobo Live once before, at Manchester's Ritz, and thus couldn’t help but compare this incarnation with my previous experience. The common theme that rang through my mind during this set was the lack of reliance on the band. Whilst they did play a large role in the depth of the music, the sound was much less organic and grand than I had recalled. Simon relied much more on the electronics, using several, morphing vocal samples and looped arpeggios to thicken the sound. Personally I preferred the natural timbres still ringing though my mind from memory, however it is testament to Bonobo's stagecraft that he can morph any of his tunes to fit any given environment. For The Warehouse Project it made sense to play to the electronic side, given the events heritage, also to tease the fans into the direction he seems to be taking with the Flashlight EP.
One element of the performance that was continuously on-point was the lighting and backdrops. The connect between sonic imagery and visuals kept every eye front and center. Vast LED spires shot upwards like fires to the beat of Emkay with a chilled blue glow bathing the swelling sea of hands, the stage show was truly immersive. The interplay between the string section, nestled firmly behind the speakers, and the vocals really created a bed of mid frequencies to lay your bobbing head on. Bonobo is probably the one act that can convince a crowd of 18 - 30 year olds to sing along to a string section like they would to Chelsea Dagger at a United game. An aspect making a welcome return from my last Bonobo experience was the drum and sax break towards the end of the set. Giving the band a nice break, this section showcased the talent Simon has sourced for his live group that may have been overlooked by the more electronic approach this time round. The saxophonist truly exploring the depths of his instrument, creating deep, dub inspired growls alongside the drummer's mesmerizing precision and endurance. A final mention I have to make is the ongoing talent of Bonobo's choice of vocalist, Szjerdene, a memorable staple. Her vocal range, elegantly sitting atop the frequency spread of the performance, really gave a warming energy to the tunes. Her stage presence enticed the crowd, always a smile beaming across her face and her fluid movements welcoming every soul. I find you are so much more inclined to engage with a band when they look like they wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world.
I must also make a comment on the people I met drifting through the venue. In the WHP's last phase of life, I became somewhat disheartened with some of the crowds it gathered. Everyone has heard the stories of drug deaths and stealing, they just didn’t compute with the ethos of the event, nothing bad on the organiser's part, its just what happens when an event becomes big. We are all aware of how the Haçienda met its maker. Having said this, the amount of welcoming, friendly and generally lovely people in attendance made the night that much warmer. It also showcased the global reach of both the acts and the Manchester scene. I had brilliant chats with producers from France, students from Mexico and several faces from around Europe throwing out moves stemming straight from the heart. All in all the night was well executed, brilliantly sound-tracked and though a little crammed, crammed with some brilliant souls.
Review by Sean Toohey
Images courtesy of Gary Brown