THUNDERCATBam!Bam!Bam! and Madnice Marauders @ Invisible Wind Factory 24/3/17
Making his Liverpool debut, LA-based bassist/singer Stephen THUNDERCAT Bruner brings his virtuosic brand of jazz fusion and RnB to warehouse-turned-nightclub Invisible Wind Factory. His appearance is highly anticipated, in no small part a product of his collaborations with rap heavyweight Kendrick Lamar, electronic/jazz innovator Flying Lotus, as well as newly anointed jazz star Kamasi Washington. Before being more widely known as an artist in his own right, Bruner played studio cat, contributing to projects by Erykah Badu, Bilal and Sa-Ra. Renowned for his truly unique and masterful bass playing, Thundercat, in a similar way to instrumental technicians like Victor Wooten or Marcus Miller, finds a large audience with musicians. Tonight could very well be Liverpool’s largest unofficial gathering of the bassists.
Across all three of his albums, especially with his most recent LP Drunk, Bruner shows a striking contrast between studio and live presentation, with an average song length of two minutes on record sometimes extending upwards of eight minutes on live renditions. His albums are nearly devoid of solo sections, essentially blueprints for the stage. This disparity illustrates Bruner’s favouring of the time-honoured jazz approach of experimentation and exploration. When interviewed by Uproxx in February, Bruner explained this by saying “You have something to say and then you don’t, and once you don’t that’s just it!”
For a performer as eccentric, both musically and aesthetically as Thundercat, he takes the stage looking uncharacteristically modest in all black T-shirt and jeans. This is a guy who is known to wear any combination of wolf pelt, Native American headdress, full Dragonball Z armour and my personal favourite, the bottom portion of a Pikachu onesie. Three quarters through a 43-date world tour, Bruner quips, “I am in Liverpool, right?” The show begins with Drunk opener Rabbot Ho, a 30-second distillation of Bruner’s idiosyncratic sense of melody and jazz harmony. Seamlessly transitioning from the unresolved last chord into live staple Tron Song, Thundercat and his band mates Dennis Hamm (Keyboards) and Justin Brown (Drums) give the song an energetic workout with Hamm and Bruner dipping into solos.
Changing pace completely with phased-out head-bobber A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II), Bruner assures us “everybody wants to be a cat, it’s cool to be a cat”. The song is simply infectious, and Bruner’s playful solo builds from measured, trumpet-like phrasing to a rapid-fire triplet crescendo. The song plays out with a spirited refrain of “meows”, naturally. Where The Giants Roam / Field Of The Nephilim begins at a crawl – you could read a novel between snare hits. Likely Thundercat’s most eerie song, it is met with a gorgeous vocal melody that hauntingly channels the late fusion great, George Duke. The song blossoms into a euphoric, double-time DnB-like onslaught led by Brown, with Hamm’s sustained synth chords providing the foundation for Bruner’s solo. Combining the extended range of his gargantuan six-string bass with an octave FX pedal, Bruner is able to live up in electric guitar territory.
Thundercat wisely peppers the set with lean versions of his more popular songs, namely Them Changes and Heartbreaks + Setbacks. This serves as a welcome change of pace from lengthier instrumental excursions. The filtered effect Bruner often applies to his bass adds a vocal-like tone that properly brings the funk. These Walls, Thundercat’s Grammy-winning collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, seamlessly reveals itself, morphing out of the Steely Dan-esque chord changes of Bus In These Streets.
Current single Friend Zone is enthusiastically received, however, the audience goes quiet when asked “you guys ever been put in the friend zone before?” Thundercat lets out a big laugh. “Tight!” Friend Zone, like other Thundercat songs, has a kind of slacker appeal, blissfully avoiding life’s problems via bloodshot sessions of Mortal Kombat and Diablo, masturbating, and watching anime. This tone is balanced by more introspective themes, reflections on death, the afterlife, and more recently, issues of race.
Following a warmly received rendition of Lamar’s Complexion, attentions wane at the hour mark. During quieter sections of We’ll Die, the room uncomfortably fills with chatter. The band picks up steam and drowns everything else out, departing on an intense instrumental excursion. Bruner and Hamm lock into a 7/8 ostinato, while Brown lets loose on drums, frantically filling as much space in time as a human can. Had there been more distortion on the bass it would sound at home on a Korn song. Bruner is certainly no stranger to metal, as he played with thrash band Suicidal Tendencies for about a decade. Rounding out the set, funk bomb Oh Sheit, It’s X gets the whole crowd dancing, singing along, and pulling a few stank faces too.
When exiting his gig in Manchester in 2015, I heard someone say “it was great but the songs all begin to sound the same,” and this criticism bears addressing. Bruner’s idiosyncratic melodic sensibilities can sometimes be mistaken as routine. He favours a certain sweet spot in his falsetto range that twists in satisfying directions with the harmony. This singular element of his music feels warm and inviting – in fact, it is essential to his appeal. It is hard to say how much Bruner will depart from this familiar territory in the future. Many artists have endured by embracing their idiosyncrasies: AC/DC never stopped using the same power chords, Timbaland still beatboxes over his drums, and the vocoder will likely always have a home on a Daft Punk record.
Admittedly, there is a learning curve when appreciating jazz music. Improvisational elements are rare in most popular music. The more time spent absorbing improvisation, the more the listener is rewarded with an understanding of a different language for communicating. In an interview with FACT magazine, when asked if jazz is capable of expressing life’s complexities, Bruner replied “Yeh, absolutely, of course. It’s about improvisation – we connect to it, and consider jazz to be the improvisation of every day. You have to make decisions through the course of every day, and understand things and try to make the soundest decision. Jazz is a key part of that.”