THUNDERCAT @ THE BAKERY, SATURDAY JUNE 8
I’m down on one knee, tying up my left bootlace, when a pair of space-print leggings enter my line of sight. The cosmic shanks nearly collide with my forehead and quickly I look up. It’s Thundercat. Whoa – it’s Thundercat!
“Hey,” I wave sheepishly.
“Hey!” Returns Thundercat. His top half boasts a t-shirt with his own logo on it, a hefty coat, thick wiry hair and a warm if slightly weary face.
I have absolutely no idea what to say to Thundercat. A moment ago I was more-or-less alone in a carpark, now I’m unexpectedly face-to-face with the man I’ve dedicated my night to witnessing. The cat has, as they say, got my tongue – so I dribble out something benign like: “Looking forward to it, man…”
“Yeah!” Thundercat intones, not breaking stride as he moves toward a silver four-wheel-drive. “Should be fun!”
Freshly loaded with Thundercat and his entourage, the car disappears down the laneway, driving off to wherever people who wear space-print leggings and weave impossibly smooth and funky 6-string bass tapestries drive off to. As for me, I wait for the corrugated ticket booth to open and eventually amble into The Bakery. DJ BEN TAAFFE is playing Madlib’s wonderful “Stepping Into Tomorrow,” among other golden offerings.
I meet a pair of buddies. Despite the cold air we sip cold beer, and lean against re-purposed petrol drums. We shift indoors as the sounds of COSMO GETS begin to ring out.
Cosmo Gets comprises two very talented young men: Cam Parkin (well known as the producer SHAZAM) and Sam Kuzich, who you might recognize from bands such as THE GROWL. Last time I saw the duo was playing at a Perth Wildcats Tribute Night in November; tonight, they’ve improved on their personal best. Though Kuzich was excellent value on synth last time round, he’s even more effective behind the drum kit, adding considerable dexterity, depth and funky crunch to the sound. The duo twist, float, ooze and pop through a labyrinth of retro-futuristic neon tones; wild electro boogie furnished with bountiful synth freakout. Parkin’s fingers scurry around his two keyboards like crabs doing the Charleston, conjuring skewed modal runs and exuberant jazzcat warbles. Kuzich – for the most part – holds down solid backbeats and tasteful hi-hats, but when required, steps it up with ornate fills and savvy syncopation. They invite a bass player friend on stage (no pressure mate, you’re only playing in front of Thundercat) who does a commendable job, adding extra beef to their already beefy sound. It’s like a triple whopper instead of just the double. Except this beef’s no crude aggregate of offcuts: it’s fancy and delicate. Triple wagyu whopper. The last track is full of intricate twists and scalic delights, but remains entirely groovy. In fact, in its blend of complexity, melodic ingenuity and euphoric commitment to infectious beat, it’s the perfect segue into THUNDERCAT.
If you’re familiar with the aforementioned Brainfeeder signatory – real name Stephen Bruner – you already know why I’m so excited at this point. The man is in a league of his own, and whether or not you vibe on his (arguably somewhat unfashionable) musical style, the jaw-dropping nature of his playing can’t be denied. He’s a bass virtuoso – not a play-as-fast-as-possible shredder, but a well-versed, neck-traversing harmonic chameleon, one who can be comfortably mentioned in the same sentence as the great Jaco Pastorious. Of course, Thundercat hasn’t shown himself to be as game-changing yet – and he hasn’t achieved that “household name” status. But having proven himself as a versatile bassman for Erykah Badu, Suicidal Tendencies, Flying Lotus – and now being two albums into a burgeoning solo career – he’s well on his way.
Bruner’s flanked on stage by formidable accompanists, to say the least. On his left is Thomas Pridgen – the seizure-inducing drum-pummeler par excellence, best known for his work with the Mars Volta. On his right, the splendid Dennis Hamm, lurking auspiciously behind a Fender Rhodes. I feel kinda bad for the latter, who inevitably has to live in the shadow of the late great keys player Austin Peralta (Peralta was collaborating with Thundercat until his untimely passing in November last year). Mind you, Austin’s presence haunts more than just the keyboard; it’s pervasive, and forms the thematic centrepiece for Thundercat’s new album ‘Apocalypse.’ Given this crucial contemplation, both the album and tonight’s gig are defiantly, resoundingly life-affirming.
The trio spares no time on formality or suspense-building, launching straight into majestic grooves like ‘Daylight.’ Bruner’s growling, milky slink intersects in inexplicable ways with Pridgen’s tight patterns and frenzied rumble. Hamm’s Rhodes bubbles through everything, infusing the rhythmic propulsion with exotic flavour. When Thundercat finally opens his mouth to sing, the emergent sound is gentle, almost feeble in comparison to the band’s immensity. But this is something I’ve always liked about Thundercat; his somewhat frail croon nicely offsets the strident bass mastery. Perhaps his vocals would be a touch more confident if he were playing his own, familiar bass – tonight’s is a borrowed one, since his own baby got broke by Qantas. Nice one guys.
Halfway into the second tune, I decide they’ve done it, they’ve actually done it – they’ve BROKEN THROUGH the funk barrier. They’ve reached a state of funk funkier than funk itself, and pure funk vapour is now escaping through their pores and condensing onto members of the crowd. From this departure point of funk extremity they melt into a kind of chaos that’s part jazz-fusion, part prog excess, and part freeform noise, a heaving tumult of fastness and shizoid melodic eruption. Outbursts like these occur throughout the set, and while an actual prog or fusion band might ride the wigout wave into the sunset, Thundercat reins it in as soon as the musical statement has been made and the emotion’s duly unfurled. Herein lies the crux of Thundercat’s approach: while virtuosity may be front and centre, it’s always to the service of an emotion or enthralling musical idea. Some will disagree, condemn it as wanky, and turn up their nose. But they’d be missing out on the rewarding essence of these tunes: heartfelt, refreshingly earnest emotions and wholly accessible grooves. There is plenty here for the music boffin to enjoy, but the approach is anything but elitist.
After a pretty wild and jammy first half, things get a bit more intimate: Bruner speaks to the crowd more, and dedicates a song to Austin Peralta; we hear mellow, easy-flowing tunes like ‘Is It Love?’ and excerpts of the cannibanoid FlyLo/Thundercat jam ‘Mmhmmmm.’ The ebb and flow of intensity continues, meanwhile – and even at their most mellow, Thundercat’s basslines are still pretty mindblowing, incorporating silky six-string chords and rapid inversion swaps. When the three musicians finally disappear from sight, they’re beckoned back on stage by emphatic applause, and the encore that takes flight is more than a token gesture – it’s tremendous, a final encapsulation of everything that made the set great.
When the crowd disperses and the night fades into a dénouement, Thundercat stands near a table greeting local fans and gladly – but shyly – signing CDs. It’s a further reminder that virtuosity needn’t equate to ego – and the songs speak for themselves when it comes to rebutting the “technical ability impedes good/authentic songwriting” argument that DIY purists sometimes pull out of dunno-where-exactly. Still, one gets the impression that much of Thundercat’s musical exploration to date has been formal, delving into textural, rhythmic and harmonic possibilities with a view to creating intriguing and emotive tunes. When it comes to lyrics, vocals, and making self-contained song statements that transcend any given aesthetic, Thundercat can still take his craft further. Luckily, given his track record of endless expansion and refinement, that’s exactly what we can expect.