For bassist Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat, who has received a flurry of media coverage this year, the introduction en vogue goes something like: “Riding high off his contributions on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic,” and Flying Lotus’ “You’re Dead,” Thundercat…”
And yes, it’s certainly true that Thundercat performed an integral role in the creation of each of those albums. As a central figure in South Los Angeles’s jazz scene and East L.A.’s beat scene, Thundercat is part of an incestuous swirl of collaboration that is producing some of today’s most compelling music, and has helped propel Lamar, Lotus, and Washington to meteoric stardom. Except here’s the thing: For a growing number of fans, Thundercat is right up there with them. And what’s becoming increasingly clear is that, for those fans, Thundercat doesn’t require any other musicians’ names in his introduction.
Sunday night’s headlining show at the Larimer Lounge proved that.
Playing before a sold-out crowd in Denver, Thundercat didn’t rely on cuts from To Pimp a Butterfly or any Lotus albums to keep the crowd completely transfixed (although he did pay homage to those artists at one point, with a song briefly incorporating Lamar’s “Complexion” and Lotus’ “Mmmhmm”)
“Get ready, we’re about to see an alien and his group of aliens!” shouted opening act Felix Fast4ward, a local artist whose own music had the audience primed to explore the outer limits of jazz-funk. For forty minutes, Fast4ward barraged the crowd with an intriguing mixture of liquid, melodic synth layers that sloshed over each other like an acid storm in a kiddie-sized pool.
When the headliner assumed the stage, however, Thundercat appeared more like a space cowboy than an alien. Like a grab bag of items from the dresser of a high school sci-fi nerd, Thundercat wore socks with anime characters, an X-Men T-shirt, a poncho, and a flat-brimmed cowboy hat. Accompanying him were keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who followed Thundercat’s lead and opened the set with songs from his recent EP, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, released in June of this year.
Almost immediately, Thundercat had some audience members shaking their heads in amazement. Watching the guy play bass is pretty incredible; he handles his oversized axe like it’s just another limb, launching into solos with a fluidity and ferocity that you’d normally assume can only be accomplished on a keyboard, guitar, or horn. His solos sound like someone driving a car with both feet on the pedals. There are sudden stops and starts as he figures out where exactly this car trip is going, each solo a plodding narrative of furious note runs that teeter on the edge of chaos, but somehow always resolve in the end.
Despite being well outside of Thundercat’s base in Los Angeles, the audience appeared quite familiar with the music. The front half of the crowd was packed with people singing along to many of the songs, and there was a roar of approval as Thundercat launched into the deep funk groove of his recent hit, “Them Changes.”
The bassist has a surprisingly airy voice to round out the low frequencies of his songs, and I was curious to see how Thundercat’s singing would come off in a live performance. In a recent interview with Westword’s Michael Roberts, Thundercat had mentioned the challenge of singing and playing bass together,
“Singing and playing live can be difficult. Like in the studio, I would record either the music track first or the vocal first. I don't necessarily do them together...it's like having to learn my own music, basically. (Laughs.) It's like I'm always whooping my own ass. Like, "What was I trying to do here? What was I expecting of myself?" (Laughs.)"If he was struggling, it was certainly hard to tell. Part of what makes Thundercat’s latest EP noteworthy is an increase in his range of vocal expression, and it seems that this confidence has translated to the stage as well.
Alternately dancing and swaying, he finished his set (and encore) strong with original tracks including “Daylight” and “Oh Sheit, It’s X” and “Walkin’” from his two full-length albums, Golden Age of the Apocalypse (2011) and Apocalypse (2013).
Even though Thundercat has collaborated on successful albums for other artists recently, these were exactly the songs the audience wanted to hear.