More packed than I had ever seen it, Oakland’s Fox Theater was clearly sold out — and for good reason. Supporting their lush seventh album, Migration (2017), mastermind of Bonobo DJ Simon Green made sure the crowd knew that he had specifically picked the Bay Area for the first show of their 30-date North American tour. Variations of “We missed you guys” and “We’re so glad to be back,” were enthusiastically delivered to the crowd in some form at least three separate times. Although crowds at the Fox likely hear that plenty, Green and the eight talented musicians touring with him were ready to bring Bonobo’s electronic music to life and prove it.
The show started with fog and white lights spiraling into the audience, establishing a hazy stage to be stealthily infiltrated as the music took over. Starting softly, subtle pulses of Migration’s title track and album opener emerged as musicians, all dressed in black, one by one, snuck onto the stage to add to the crescendoing groove. Light, rhythmic cymbal taps, sleek synth arpeggios, and swells from the three part horn-section jumped into the sonic atmosphere before the crowd even fully realized there were more physical figures on stage. Right as the crowd was starting to grasp the events taking place, the band had already taken control of the mist we were all in, and started to send us off through the dreamscape they had prepared.
It quickly became clear why the band was wearing subdued all-black clothing: the band meant to stay out of the way of their stunning visuals, which became our guides as the music swept us away. While the band members remained understated and focused on delivering clean instrumentation, the staging featured tall columns of combed, well-coordinated lights, and off-set screens of varying sizes. Continuing the theme of Migration’s album artwork, the screens displayed visuals of massive and striking natural landscapes featuring juxtapositions of floating fire, glowing light, and brightly-colored clouds. The visuals were always moving forward — a stunning complement to the ongoing nature of the morphing soundscape.
Given their fruitful nearly two decade career, the whole night felt rightfully celebratory. Primarily featuring songs from Bonobo’s three most recent albums, the performance was familiar, cathartic for longtime fans, and — I don’t use this word often — undeniably sexy. Helping this cause was past collaborator and sultry vocalist Szjerdene, who graced the center stage numerous times throughout the night and contributed human passion to what was already an intoxicatingly smooth instrumental performance. The harmonious pairing of the band’s fluid execution and steady energy showcased the performers’ skills of manifesting an atmosphere that is at once both relaxing and invigorating.
Just as easily as they had materialized on stage, various band members disappeared throughout the performance, adapting cleanly to the ever-changing configuration on stage. Halfway through the night, the crowd was treated to Green performing as a solo act, effortlessly giving life to and transitioning between songs. With a bass still strapped on as he adjusted his DJ equipment, Green’s love for holding the crowd’s pleasure at his fingertips was simultaneously heartwarming and electrifying.
When the full band returned and reintroduced its gorgeously expansive sound, it became hard to pinpoint a true highlight of the show. The uninterrupted stream of the sound could not simply be perceived as a sum of individual songs. It was as if Bonobo had truly faded into our minds and guided us through a vivid and satisfying dream, blending seamlessly together, and leaving us reflecting on how awe-inspiring the whole experience was.
Written by Dylan Medlock
Photos by Olivia Song