Review

Bonobo Brought Challenging New Sounds to Red Rocks With OUTLIER

Bonobo brought OUTLIER to Red Rocks on July 21.
Bonobo brought OUTLIER to Red Rocks on July 21. Bonobo Facebook
Before there was a thriving aboveground house scene in Colorado, the Centennial State’s electronic-music offerings were ruled by a cohort of bass-heads, ranging from drippy psychedelia, à la Tipper, to Excision, 2010’s sonic equivalent of Linkin Park. It seemed like most of these sounds weren’t so much about a groove as they were about thrashing and headbanging, so that the crowds' mannerisms more readily evoked a Limp Bizkit show than a disco club.

It was this atmosphere that made people who were more into “underground” sounds like house, disco and techno tend to social-distance themselves from these shows, lest they catch wook flu or get non-consensually light-gloved by someone visibly melting on the finest bath salts this side of Chinese chemical regulators — myself included. However, this also made it difficult to find electronic-music shows at established venues that we actually wanted to go to.

But once in a while, a party would roll through town that was both attractive to the underground and could sell tickets. And one of those parties was Bonobo.

A Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist and music producer, Simon Green — aka Bonobo — melds a tantalizing concoction of downtempo, house, R&B and world music into a cinematic, rhythmic, dance-floor experience occasionally peppered with breakbeats, disco, dub and pretty much any other genre of sonically similar music you can think of. And while these sounds were largely unknown among the electronic masses in Colorado, Bonobo had played them for them as far back as 2009!

Recently, though, the “underground” has started to burrow into the mainstream, where many of the most sought-after DJs in the sphere are booked locally, often to crowds smaller than they would draw elsewhere in the world. With Bonobo’s stage presence, though, he’s able to encourage mainstream revelers to have an open mind. And that unprejudiced attitude defines his current tour, OUTLIER, billed as “an underground-inspired event series both ideated and curated by none other than Green himself.”

The underground is still the underground, however, and during the July 21 OUTLIER show, many mainstream Red Rocks hedonists got their first taste of Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Jacques Greene, Waajeed and a stylistically reinvented TOKiMONSTA.

I’d actually seen one of these OUTLIER shows before, in 2019 at Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, and was curious to see the crowd’s response to this version. During that earlier show, there were moments when the crowd was visibly confused, especially during Mall Grab's blistering, dark techno set, when pummeling, industrial kick drums reverberated off the shells of nuclear bombs and other instruments of mass murder. Most of the crowd stopped moving, but that didn’t deter Mall Grab, who was encouraged by the ethos of OUTLIER to do whatever the hell he wanted. I wondered if I would see this same artistic freedom when Jacques Greene inevitably dropped into his more gazey, leftfield compositions. Or had the fear and isolation of the pandemic warped the brains of cloud-in-the-sky heady ravers into cynical, dusty techno fans like myself? 

I stepped onto the Rocks, misted in rain and smog, about ten minutes into Greene's set. Greene's a  favorite who recently made a stylistic transition from funky house music to more shoegaze-laden, introspective electronic pieces, and for the most part, the crowd vibed with anything that he threw down — even the leftfield, lo-fi house and breaks that have probably never tickled the dinosaur bones inside the ancient sedimentary monoliths. Despite being a fan, the only song I recognized was a rendition of the Orb’s "Little Fluffy Clouds" mixed over a Chicago house-inspired track.

After Greene came Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, or TEED for short. He took the stage to lay down an introverted set of house, drum and bass, and leftfield-influenced dance tracks that seemed to enrapture the crowd, despite the eccentricity of the genres being played. In fact, he offered one of my favorite tracks of all time, and one I never expected to hear at Red Rocks: 2004’s "The Sky Was Pink," by Nathan Fake

TOKiMONSTA — real name Jennifer Lee — seemed to be the act that many were waiting for. A few years ago, she lost her ability to speak, as well as to understand music, because of a traumatic brain disease known as moyamoya. When she appeared, the crowd started roaring. She opened up the set with a sort of trap-infused, soulful, G-house song, followed by transitions between Prince’s "Erotic City" and the sultry, deep body shakers of Channel Tres’s "Controller," and moved on to other Red Rocks mainstays such as Disclosure’s "Ultimatum." Her set was probably the rowdiest of the night, and also the most accessible, hands-in-the-air set.

Finally, Bonobo. The headliner didn’t play as leftfield of a set as his OUTLIER Spotify playlist would suggest, but it was a worldly selection, filled with tasteful tracks reminiscent of his signature sound, including a personal favorite of the last couple of years — the hypnotic, piano-driven, emotive dance track "The Rapture," by &Me. Bonobo could do no wrong with most in the crowd, even after coming off the energy of TOKiMONSTA; he successfully brought things back to a more loungey vibe. I’m sure there were some die-hard hipsters who were bored, but they were enveloped in the endorphins of everyone who was there to just have a good time.

As a jaded underground hipster myself, I have worked to embrace the subjectivity of music, knowing that it affects each listener differently. And with the range of styles that came through the speaker stacks that night, it’s nearly impossible to know which tracks had what influence on whom. All I know is that it was a special experience for me, seeing a crowd constantly moving to a sound that is seldom heard outside the walls of forward-thinking nightclubs oceans away.
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