The Bamboos are quickly becoming national treasures of the Australian music industry

The Bamboos are quickly becoming national treasures of the Australian music industry

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Words by Augustus Welby
Photo by David Harris

Their recent Melbourne Recital Centre show was one of the most original performances they’ve ever produced.

The Bamboos are loosely defined as a funk band, but there’s always been a kind of formality to the Melbourne collective. They’re out and out enthusiasts, musically accomplished and not wedged in by bravado. Their music facilitates dance floor action, but it’s never been content in doing that alone.

Lance Ferguson writes all of the band’s songs, but rarely takes a central role. Bamboos songs are often rooted in the lusty interplay of the rhythm section and a bit of brass pyrotechnics. Then there’s the sky shattering lead vocals of Kylie Auldist and a range of regular guests. So, while Ferguson is the visionary, his role is akin to that of coordinator.

The purpose of this prologue is to say that a Bamboos concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre with a string octet and a selection of venerable guest vocalists was not a difficult concept to get your head around, even if it was a novelty.

Ferguson was the onstage MC and maintained a watchful eye throughout. However, long-time trumpeter Ross Irwin was elevated to the role of conductor for this event. Irwin oversaw the string arrangements that populate the band’s new orchestral retrospective album, By Special Arrangement. Next year marks 20 years since the band’s formation and, as Ferguson put it, this project is the beginning of the anniversary celebrations.

The energy in the building was one of familial affection. The audience demography tilted towards the age of the original band members. You could imagine a lot of folks present were staples of the late ‘90s Fitzroy party scene. This was a time for seated absorption, however, and everyone was happy to oblige.

Kylie Auldist has been a Bamboos regular since 2007’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Stop’. “This is the most grown-up gig I’ve ever done,” she said after the conga-driven ‘Keep Me In Mind’. “So I’m a bit nervous.” You’d never have picked it. Any doubt about Auldist’s pre-eminence as a soul vocalist was comprehensively erased. Against the more leisurely tempos and softened arrangements, her voice modulated with unbelievable potency.

The first special guest was Megan Washington, who reprised her role on ‘90s-tinged pop song ‘Eliza’ and a cover of James Blake’s ‘The Wilhelm Scream’. She seemed stoked to have had a ten-year working relationship with The Bamboos and is a difficult figure not to like.

Urthboy is the same, one of the loveliest men in Australian music, and while ‘Broken’ – from the Boos’ Night Time People record – isn’t one of their strongest, it was a feel-good way to cap off the first set.

After the interval, sitar player Kumar Shome joined for an extended version of ‘Up On The Hill’ from the 4 album and boy was it a majestic expedition. Then Tim Rogers arrived looking immaculate in a suit two or three sizes too big. “With The Bamboos, you just can’t lose,” he intoned before they launched into a reworked ‘I Got Burned’.

The synergy was instantly magnetic and you can understand why they were compelled to make a whole album together in 2015. Auldist returned to duet with Rogers on a cut from that record, ‘Did I Wake You?’, but not before Rogers let us know that no one can out-drink The Bamboos.

Some drinks were definitely in order following the unblemished execution of The Bamboos’ first proper concert.