Andy Polaris is wowed by Thundercat at Meltdown, London
As part of Nile Rodgers-curated Meltdown Thundercat was an inspired choice as a funk jazz guitarist who I first heard about through Pitchfork and stumbled across his quirky videos Walkin’ and Show You The Way on YouTube. His album Drunk especially broke through commercially and critically and was my first introduction and subsequently he has released several more. He is a multi-instrumentalist with an eclectic style and songs where cerebral Eighties electronic pop sensibilities merge with alternative, psychedelia, neo-soul and fusion.
Opening the set with Rabbit Ho / Captain Stupido with an LA baseball cap pulled over his tinted dreads, wearing a baggy top over shorts and trainers, he looked casual and relaxed. Often communicating with the audience with random thoughts regarding lost friends, self-medicating, and laughing at some private jokes while quoting from a Coen Bros movie before getting back to the business at hand.
It was actually astonishing to watch his fingers move frenetically across that fret board of a six-string bass guitar with such dexterity and couldn’t think of anyone I’ve ever seen do with such speed. The melodious bass made me think of the late Jaco Pastorius and some of the soundscapes he performed with Joni Mitchell. The intensity of the three musicians – Thundercat aka Stephen Bruner, Justin Brown on drums and Dennis Hamm on keyboards – playing at full throttle was something to behold, but when it slowed down it is important to acknowledge Bruner’s beautiful clear singing falsetto that adds sweetness to the bass- heavy rhythm.
He has worked with Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and won a Grammy for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp A Butterfly. I was less familiar with his work with the band Flying Lotus and as a bass player for LA punk band Suicidal Tendencies which perhaps explains his unorthodox genre-busting style. His video for Show You The Way (featuring Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald) shows some inner soul-searching against a soulful synthesised mid-tempo jam that belies the usual video vixens for a sombre black man entering a wellness clinic. On stage he comments on the death of a close friend which colours his lyrics and themes and in interviews mentions laughing instead of crying at the social injustice for black men in America.
Stylistically he seems closer to Bootsy Collins and Frank Zappa, having cited the latter as an influence. These cross-cultural references in his music are what make him interesting, a black nerd who pulls ideas from unexpected areas, solidified with dark humour, and presented in new funk format. In fact a group that pulled this off successfully were De La Soul and Thundercat shares some of the psychedelia and love of harmony, which that band utilised with inventive samples.
I suppose all my expectations about the concert were unfounded. It provided a jolt of improvised energy far removed from the laid-back mood of his official music videos, refreshingly unpredictable. It was an age-diverse, mainly white audience who for the most part spent the whole concert seated listening attentively, despite a long-haired hipster waving a fan who broke ranks during the sublime Friends Zone and elicited vocal approval from the stage by dancing enthusiastically. Perhaps this was due to the long jazz fusion interludes which coiled and retracted in unpredictable fashion not lending themselves to anything but interpretative dance. The three-minute pop song it was not, however the crowd luxuriated in atmospheric tracks like Lone Wolf and Cub and Tron Song.
The crowd finally rose to their feet for the final cuts which included, Them Changes, Lotus and Jondy (about missed friend jazz pianist Austin Peralta who Bruner talked about fondly), also a snatch of Yarborough and People’s Don’t Stop The Music where he admitted he didn’t know the words to the verses but certainly knew the infectious vibe.
This was an organic and spontaneous performance and as a first-time live experience with him I did not have much to compare it against. I have a feeling that it won’t be my last and that Thundercat (whose free-flowing live performance might be an acquired taste) has plenty of other guitar licks up his sleeve.
Meltdown 2019, curated by Nile Rodgers, continues at London’s South Bank Centre 3–11 August… featuring Johnny Marr, Kero Kero Bonito, anaïs and Nakhane, Eurythmics Songbook, Kokoroko, SOPHIE, James Murphy, David and Stephen Dewaele