Thundercat at Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 27th 2017
For so long Flying Lotus’ (head honcho of LA jazz revivalist label, Brainfeeder) understudy, Thundercat (real name, Stephen Bruner) has had quite the year. These Walls bagged him a Grammy for Best Sung/Rap Collaboration for his work on the ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ highlight, while in Them Changes he produced one of the best songs to come out of last year. 2017 meanwhile is the year that the multi-instrumentalist finally broke his way into greater public consciousness. He received an aggregate score of 80 on Metacrtic for his Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell-featuring album, ‘Drunk’ and populated our news feeds for anything from his reported involvement on Kendrick’s next album to his comments about anime or the meaninglessness of the term “yacht rock”.
On the 27th March he made the leap from the companionable surroundings of The Sugar Club to the larger capacity of Vicar Street. Arriving on stage adorned in a smock-like white top with a six-stringed Ibanez bass strapped to his chest, he wasted no time, making a short quip about the ruin and clutter of touring before launching into Rabbit Ho followed by Tron Song and A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song II).
Despite pop-crossover moments in Them Changes, Oh Sheit it’s X and Drink Dat, this is still Thundercat at his most raw. And he is happy to embrace this, frequently embarking upon (as long as ten minute) guitar solos in between songs. Bruner rarely loses the audience’s attention however, managing to maintain a groove throughout, even during slower turns such as Where the Giants Roam/Field of the Nephilim or the FlyLo indebted MmmHmm .
See, having starred as a session player for artists such as Bilal, Erykah Badu and Taylor McFerrin (son of Bobby-yeah, the Don’t Worry, Be Happy guy), Thundercat is at heart a jazz player. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that he can’t take centre stage. The night is his. Nevertheless, equally impressive are the telepathic talents of keyboardist, Dennis Hamm and drummer, Justin Brown who, on their thirty-first night of the tour – which has seen them travel as far as Israel and Turkey – could be forgiven for putting a note or two wrong.
Crowd interaction is at a minimum but Thundercat does his talking through the performance. Highlights include MmmHmm, which he manages to interpolate into the set intermittently over the course of one particularly sublime fifteen minute block, and Them Changes, which he gives a new explosive lease of life.
On ‘Drunk‘, Thundercat fleets between heartbroken insomniac, gaming nerd and wry observational humourist. And from the occasional video game-like bleeps to his lyricism about not being able to go to sleep because “there’s something in my heart/ The streets keep calling me” on 3AM or his declaration on Bus in These Streets (“Thank God for technology ‘cause where would we be if we couldn’t tweet our thoughts?”), Thundercat’s show is a sort of manifesto circa the existential musings of ‘Apocalypse‘.
The performance is an epic carried along by his angelic voice and his and his band’s complex rhythm sections. As for what’s next, who knows what direction Thundercat will take – whether he’ll continue with the cosmic jazz mantra of Brainfeeder or whether his hip-hop engagement will extend beyond collaborations with Kendrick and Childish Gambino, or if he’ll in fact adopt more pop sensibilities in the mould of Them Changes et al. Who knows? maybe it’ll be all three. One thing’s for sure though. It’ll all be on his terms and it’ll be authentic. Well done Thundercat. You may move onto the next level!