Thundercat – or, to his cable company, Stephen Bruner – is a bass guitar virtuoso who mixes elements of funk, R‘n’B, soul and hip-hop to brew an elemental concoction of one-of-a-kind musical innovation.
While many were first introduced to Thundercat, perhaps unwittingly, through his key contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Thundercat has had a steady presence in contemplative funk pop since 2008, collaborating on projects with Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus (amongst others) before releasing his debut solo album, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, in 2011.
The Commodore stage was set with a drum-kit, three keyboards and some strategically placed mics and little stools. The room went black and then a warm, sunny light shone down on the stage as a slow, playful riff sang out from the awakening keys. A beat began to build as the drums came in and the light burned red-hot, at which point Thundercat announced himself with a bassy thump and walked out, plucking at his strings, as the gathered crowd went mad for him.
Thundercat wore a loose red and black-striped shirt with shiny red boxing shorts (embroidered finely with a white dragon of sorts) and dreaded hair that looked like shiny vines of liquorice hanging off of his head, for, indeed, his hair was red too. Thundercat’s gold chain – thick, but tasteful – hung around his neck and over his chest, and it swayed and bounced ever-so-slightly as he rhythmically jerked and convulsed whilst giving the bass it’s proper slapping. He finished off his outfit with tall black gym socks, which he had pulled high, and white double-strapped sandals. Why do I describe the man’s dress? Because the man’s dress is a natural extension of his music – odd, out-there, and comfortably awesome.
The band quickly transitioned into a rendition of “Tron Song”, from Thundercat’s second album, Apocalypse. Thundercat jammed with dynamism, jumping around with the energy of a toddler with his toy guitar, scrunching his eyes and baring his teeth during particularly terse portions of his solo. The band moved on to “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”, colloquially known as The Meow Meow Kitty song, drawing excited chatter and gaggles of coos from charmed audience members. With Thundercat rocking the front of the stage and sporadically shooting-off quick quips to up-close audience members, the band jammed on, playing a cool, moody reprise which led into an energetic give-and-take between Thundercat and his drummer, in which his drummer was allowed plenty of room “to give”, showing off flair and technical skill in a spine-rattling display.
After some raucous applause, the band moved into the bouncing beat of “Heartbreaks + Setbacks”, and followed it up with by the most widely anticipated cut of the night – “Them Changes”. The shrieks of joy that rung around the Commodore Ballroom must be old shoe to Thundercat and his bandmates because they took every opportunity to elongate the tune with a an impromptu solo riff, and to spice it up with intricate off-tempo internal rhythms. The crowd sang along with most of the lyrics and continued to do so during the next song – “I Am Crazy”.
The band started up another song and transitioned into a funked-up rendition of Kendrick Lamar’s original hit song, “If These Walls Could Talk”, and the crowd returned to its singing ways as Thundercat gently sang the chorus. Thundercat continued to stoke that songbird flame, playing a version of “Walk On By”.
Thundercat paused to chat with the crowd a bit. He cracked a few little jokes and threw a few playful barbs at some select audience members, before taking hold of his drink and proposing a toast to Wiz Khalifa. The band played on, and Thundercat rejoined them on his bass to play an extended version of “Drink Dat”. The band continued to jam and transitioned into a new song that I didn’t recognize as anything by Thundercat (nor were there any accompanying lyrics by which to identify it). I did, however, notice that Thundercat was playing nearly identical chords as are used in the bassline of J Dilla’s “Workinonit”, from his 2006 album Donuts. As a devoted fan of both Thundercat and J DIlla, it was a fun little easter egg for me to decipher.
Next, the band played “Tokyo” and “Lone Wolf and Cub” with plenty of audience support, before the entire crowd was set off into the biggest dance frenzy of the night by the deliciously cheeky “Friend Zone”. Thundercat followed this up by speaking a bit about his deep respect for the recently deceased Walter Becker, and crooned a delicate dedication of “My Waterloo”.
The band then moved into a rendition of “Lotus and the Jondy”, and followed it up with a “Captain Stupido”, and “DUI”, medley of sorts, with a synthy orchestral sci-fi flourish to end it all. Thundercat took his recorded music and did exactly what a great live artist does – he elevated it. Between the crowd and the band and, of course, Thundercat himself, everyone at the Commodore was invested in the music. And that’s why Thundercat’s performance at the Commodore, I’m certain, left every single customer completely satisfied.
“You guys know I love you, right?”, he said during a brief pause.
Yeah, we know man. We love you, too.