WRITTEN BY: MAX KLEMMER
On Saturday, March 4, 2017 Thundercat returned to Philadelphia to play a raucous sold out show at the Union Transfer.
Most hip-hop fans should recognize the name Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner). The 32-year-old virtuoso bassist has provided bass and/or vocals on projects for Mac Miller, Erykah Badu, Vic Mensa, Childish Gambino, Ty Dolla $ign, and of course, Kendrick Lamar. Thundercat was all over Lamar’s recent To Pimp a Butterfly with credits on five songs, not including his performance on the Grammy award winning track “These Walls.” He is also known as a collaborator with good friend Flying Lotus and performed on Kamasi Washington’s jazz masterpiece The Epic. Metalheads may know Thundercat as a former member of the band Suicidal Tendencies, with whom he played for nine years.
Needless to say, Thundercat is a popular guy, and rightly so. He is one of the few bass players in recent memory to push through from the background up to the spotlight. His playing style features a frequent use of bass chords, rapid sixteenth note runs, and beautiful melodic lines. His bass tone often has a synth sound to it or envelope filter on. His music prominently features his angelic falsetto and lyrics about Dragonball Z, his cat, wild nightlife, and existential crises.
Since February, Thundercat has been touring for his fourth album, Drunk, which came out February 24 and features appearances from Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, Kenny Loggins, and Michael McDonald. This tour has been a fairly big deal for Thundercat and the band (simply one complete rhythm section comprised of drummer Justin Brown and keyboardist Dennis Hamm). On March 3, Thundercat was in New York City and brought out modern day jazz legend Robert Glasper and comedian Dave Chappelle. Unfortunately they did not make an appearance in Philadelphia.
Waiting in line I noticed that the crowd here boasted a wide variety of people, from grey-haired grown ups to high schoolers; from hip-hop heads to hippies to jazz cats to nerds and everything in between. Comedian Zack Fox took the stage first, riffing on how he hates Utah, revealing some dark truths about Lord of the Rings, and chronicling a harrowing ordeal in an Atlanta Waffle House.
Finally, around 10:00, the man himself, Thundercat, appeared to us in the concert hall. He greeted us and opened with “Rabbot Ho,” the first track off of Drunk. His falsetto drifted over the crowd over the slow but mighty hits of the song. And down the rabbit hole we travelled: the next two hours were filled with epic jamming from each member of the band over songs from Drunk as well as Bruner’s other three albums and some collaborations.
Only six of Drunk’s twenty-three songs extend over the three minute mark but just about every song that night easily stretched over six minutes. Show highlights include tributes to Bruner’s cat, Tron, appropriately titled “Tron Song,”, and “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II),” played back to back following “Rabbot Ho.” “Them Changes,” which appeared on Drunk and Thundercat’s previous EP The Beyond/ Where Giants Roam was a crowd favorite played early, likely to quell the crowd’s demands, vocalized during the pauses between songs. “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” was another favorite played early, which Bruner switched up by singing in his regular voice rather than airy falsetto which graces the album version. The band played Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” to much enthusiasm from the crowd. “Complexion” was played as long as any of Thundercat’s own songs, with an extended jam despite the the chorus being the only vocals performed. Thundercat played an incredibly lively “Lotus and the Jondy” near the end of the set.
After the fake ending which irritatingly seems mandatory for performers today, the band came back on stage, playing “Oh Sheit it’s X,” a true party song which some might recognize from the Grand Theft Auto V radio station, FlyLo FM. Thundercat closed out this magical night with Drunk’s final track, “DUI,” which like “Rabbot Ho,” featured no jamming, just an epic closure with some mighty big hits.
Much of the band’s interplay was focused on Bruner and drummer Justin Brown, though Hamm took his share of solos. Bruner, like a true bassist did not take up all of the spotlight, often staying in his zone and letting Brown go crazy and really move the jams along. Much of the improvisational parts of the night were mostly groove sections where no one member of the band was going particularly off script the whole time. However, when he did solo Thundercat soared, shredding away just as a fan would imagine.
The whole night I was impressed by the crowd’s energy and respect. People danced and sang along to every song, even through the jams, which was surprising to me from the younger fans. There was actually space to move and dance, which for standing room at a sold out show was very impressive. Everyone was exceedingly appreciative of the space age jazz they were enjoying. As one attendee I spoke to said, “I’m glad to see that the real deal is popular again.”