Where do you start with that?
We saw all facets of Stephen Bruner aka Thundercat at Sunday night’s Meltdown slot. We got the attention span challenged opening clutch of songs from 2017’s Drunk LP. We got the speed freak tear ups that betrayed Bruner’s background in Suicidal Tendencies, the legendary LA hardcore punk band. We got sweet falsetto harmonies with his colleagues, drummer Justin Brown and keyboard player Dennis Hamm. We got the goofy stoner humour that underpins much of Drunk.
And ultimately we got the funk.
Putting all of that is dizzying. The band have the chops – oh boy, do they have the chops. The interplay between them is verging on the telepathic, especially when considering the velocity. Bruner’s voice shines through, more so than on records. It is a thing of beauty handling both the high registers and the downright dirty stuff too. His bass playing lives in some kind of space betwixt and between a conventional bass player underpinning the groove and a soloist playing way up the neck with agility and fluidity. It truly is like nothing that I’ve ever seen before.
The venue was a help and a hindrance. The grand old Royal Festival Hall has tremendous acoustics and was perfect for appreciating the nuances. It is though totally seated and some of the band’s extended jams needed some greater level of audience motion and interaction to bounce off of. This eventually came toward the end of the set when they launched into the mother of all grooves seguing Them Changes into Yarborough & Peoples’ 80s classic Don’t Stop The Music.
Visually he was a clash between George Clinton and Lee Scratch Perry. Bruner’s signature Ibanez 6 string bass is striking enough with its large body, chunky neck and huge pick-ups. Couple that with orange dreadlocks, a large white tote bag carried over the shoulder and blue and green sparkling hi-tops and you’ve got quite the look.
There’s a fundamental gap to bridge between the format of Thundercat’s recordings and his live work. Take Drunk for instance – 23 songs over a period of 51 minutes. Some are sketches (I Am Crazy, Day& Night), some fully fleshed out songs (Show You The Way, Walk On By). Guest vocalists add some more interest – the two songs latterly mentioned featured Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and Kendrick Lamar. Now I recognise that it would be a stretch to drag those guys along to every show but Meltdown is often an opportunity to do something different. A few UK based singers and rappers would have introduced some light to go with the shade.
That said, the energy, skill and melody ultimately won over. Bruner’s got the personality to pull it off. I took a little while to warm to Drunk but it’s been a record that I’ve frequently played over the last couple of years. It was challenging at times, just like the Meltdown gig, but the best things in life often are.
A few words about support band Onyx Collective. New York based, they appear to a collective who appear in unusual locations – shop fronts, hotel bars, basements unannounced and stylistically fluid. Led by saxophonist Isisiah Barr, we got a funk and soul show at Meltdown with the emphasis on songs rather than free jazz improvisation which seems to be the style of a few songs that I’ve heard since we saw them. I’m looking through their catalogue and I’ll share something that reflects what I heard at the Royal Festival Hall. They were excellent and I’d happily see them again based on the performance.