9/30/15 – Middle East Downstairs

Most people have heard Thundercat – they just don’t know it.

Thundercat, or Stephen Bruner, has had a big year. He played bass on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kamasi Washington’s three-part magnus opus The Epic, Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead, and Taylor McFerrin’s Early Riser. Almost everything to come out of the L.A. scene, embodied by the part-jazz-part-hip-hop Brainfeeder Records, has been touched by Thundercat and his six-string bass.    

Last week Thundercat brought his soulful bass to the sold-out Middle East in Cambridge. From the first notes of “Hard Times,” it was clear that Bruner has worked to bring his vocals up to par with his next-level musicianship. His George Duke-esque falsetto shone, and his confidence as a vocalist matched his confidence as a bandleader.

“Make some fucking noise Boston!” he said to raucous applause, signs of appreciation, and even one guy bowing down vigorously. Thundercat had on a signature goofy hat and an equally goofy smile throughout. When the audience filled in lyrics – to his surprise – he elicited a brief “Oh shit!” before returning to singing. His well-deserved rise to popularity, brought about by his many collaborations and 2015’s The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, seemed to stun him.

Most of the evening consisted of instrumentals. The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam is a brilliantly creative, though succinct, addition to the bassist’s discography. Only one track clocks in over four minutes – the Herbie Hancock feature “Lone Wolf and Cub.” But live, Thundercat and his trio – Dennis Hamm on keys and Justin Brown on drums – turned most tracks into spiritual jazz jams.

Brown’s complex playing was nearly as impressive as Thundercat’s textured, spasmodic soloing. His polyrhythmic drumming gave the impression of ordered chaos. Hamm offered a few impressive solos too, though at times the keys were unruly, just a touch too outside, and harmonically dissonant. With Thundercat’s heavily effected six-string bass and his ability to elicit seemingly infinite timbres, it was rare that Thundercat and his band sounded like a trio.

Perhaps the longest jam was a medley of songs by Thundercat and his collaborators. It was easy to get lost in DMT Song, which was co-written with Austin Peralta for Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes. Peralta, a child prodigy who tragically died in 2012 at age 22, was a close friend of both FlyLo and Thundercat. The drug-inspired song seamlessly paired up with “Message for Austin,” Thundercat’s emotional tribute to Austin Peralta, and “Mmmhmm,” from FlyLo’s Cosmogramma.

In an interview, Flying Lotus reported that when he recorded the song for Thundercat he had to splice and mix the demo vocals together, as Thundercat couldn’t sing it all the way through without crying. Hearing Thundercat successfully perform the song live, after having played “DMT Song,” was an emotional moment for those in the know.

And then out of nowhere came “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. To call this a cover would be slightly inaccurate; Thundercat produced the track, and his aesthetic runs rampant throughout the chorus. His subdued version eschewed Kendrick’s verses and vamped on the chorus with some additional “oohs” and “aahs.”

Members of the audience, packed into the low-ceilinged Middle East Downstairs, nodded their heads and yelled in recognition of each track. This was an audience of heads. They didn’t just cheer for “Them Changes,” the single from Thundercat’s newest EP, which sounded even better live, drenched in wah and with even better bass riffs. They also cheered for old cuts like “Oh Sheit, It’s X!”

The unmistakably ecstasy-inspired track (“I just want to party/And you should be here with me/ I’m on ecstasy”), ended with a washed out, hallucinogenic outro. Like much of Thundercat’s music, it would be easy to think the reverb-soaked, decaying end was chaotic and unordered. But beneath the mindbendingly fast riffs and soulful bass lies tremendous intentionality and musicianship.

Thundercat may be the best bassist playing at the moment – people just might not know it yet.

The Beyond: Thundercat
Pros
  • Next-level musicianship
  • Funky
  • Positive vibes
Cons
  • A couple unruly solos
9Overall Score

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