In what turned out to be the Ogden’s last show for the next 30 days, Thundercat, whose real name is Stephen Bruner, brought his signature bass-shredding skills to Denver on March 12. A funky haze of warbled basslines, cool keys from keyboardist Dennis Hamm and mind-boggling complexity from drummer Justin Brown all came together in a night of warm, jazzed-up funk.
First of all, Thundercat loves to play. The joy of playing his bass was written all over his ephebic face, as though he wasn’t playing in front of a sold-out Ogden Theatre. An active musician since 2000, one would think that the novelty of live performance would have worn off at least a little, but for Bruner, it seems as though the stage is home.
Wearing a jovial grin and sequined jacket that glimmered underneath the spotlights, Bruner plunked away at his six-string, bubblegum pink bass while he sang in a soft, warm alto. Pink gel lights lined the stage, flashing and rippling across the stage, continuously varied movement mirroring continuously varied notes.
The live performances of Thundercat’s more well-known songs were adorned with hyper-charged yet controlled, chaotic and jazzy embellishments, at times forgoing tonality for colorful noise. After long-winded improvisational interludes, Thundercat returned to the song — this time with a different rhythm than the studio version. These live tweaks create once-in-a-lifetime performances, a unique sound that transports listeners right into the throes of the band’s creative explorations.
Brown sounded as though he was using two bass drum kick pedals, and upon closer inspection, he did in fact have two pedals affixed to his kit. Yet he had no need for both, as his rapid-fire foot did the work of two. The double kick pedal is a staple of both jazz percussion and, surprisingly, death metal drum kits — and considering that Bruner actually played bass in the thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies from 2002-2011, the link between Thundercat’s frenetic improvisations and their metal roots became more and more apparent with each song.
After an energetic start to their set, the band slowed down in the Thundercat manner — meaning, tons of wild polyrhythmic syncopation still remained, but both Hamm and Bruner let their chords reverberate a little longer. As Bruner took to the mic again, his voice leaped seamlessly into a falsetto and sounded just as rich an octave above as his lower ranges. Brown, and occasionally Hamm too, harmonized on vocals, with Brown continuously pounding away on his drum breezily.
Between songs, Bruner joked around with the audience, responding to cries of “I love you!” with mock discomfort and discussing his cat. “You know your cat is gonna die before you,” he said, while an audience member standing next to me yelled back, “don’t talk about it bro, what the fuck!” Later, Bruner took to the mic to draw attention to the current pandemic, albeit indirectly. “Well, seeing as we’re about to be playing a lot of video games real soon…” He trailed off into the song, “Friend Zone,” which contains the lyrics, “I’m gonna play Diablo either way, you can go or you could go, Because I’d rather play Mortal Combat anyway hey…” A flawless segue from banter to music, all while referencing the current precarity of public health.
Oscillating squishy synths contrasted beautifully with deep, thunking notes of the bass. It’s clear that Bruner has some form of formal jazz training, as he has trained his ear impeccably, shifting effortlessly between half-notes and even the occasional quarter tone. However, it did feel that Brown and Bruner kept frantically trying to match tempo but just couldn’t hit the synchronicity perfectly. Perhaps the acoustics of the Ogden is to blame, as the intricacies of Thundercat’s music require space to spread. But the reverberation muddled the sound of the music at times, even for the musicians on stage.
As the show neared its end, Thundercat shared that he collaborated with Flying Lotus recently on a song for the newest show by Shinichiro Watanabe, the creator of beloved animes like Samurai Shamploo and Cowboy Bebop. Both shows notably featured incredible scores done by artists like Nujabes and Fat Jon. After playing his newest creation, Brown began the familiar rhythm of, “Them Changes,” while Bruner teased the crowd with his bass. Since it was near the end of the show, some people had already begun making their way towards the exit. But upon hearing the squishy, flanged notes, several concertgoers literally began running back into the crowd. Everyone sang along to “Nobody move, there’s blood on the floor,” as they boogied to the last big show in Denver for the next month.