“Ladies and gentlemen: on stage tonight is the musical virtuosos. They spent hours and hours of their life practicing their craft, and tonight we get to enjoy the sum total of their work.” So said Dave Chappelle, walking on stage with a beer and a cigarette before Thundercat and his band came back out for an encore. Something happened at Irving Plaza on the night of March 3rd. I’m still not quite sure what it was, or what to make of it, but I know that somewhere in all of the twists and turns of the momentous performance was a true vision for music of the future. The way the music transformed on stage made it impossible to categorize, fusing elements of jazz, funk, pop, rock, and who knows what else into something that ultimately just sounded like music.
Each member had the potential to dominate the stage at any given moment. Drummer Justin Brown could let loose on his kit, exhibiting a fiery display of Buddy Rich chops with John Bonham intensity on songs like “Tron Song” and the trippy “Lotus and the Jondy” but he could also hold down a steady hip-hop beat, working in subtleties beneath the crack of his snare. Keyboardist Dennis Hamm would build up layers of organs, keys, and synthesizers, before coming in out of left field with eviscerating synth solos on “Daylight” and a cover of Flying Lotus’ “Descent Into Madness”.
As for Thundercat, real name Stephen Bruner, what he does to the bass should hopefully earn him a spot in the music history books among the very best. Not unlike Phil Lesh, he has not so much revolutionized the instrument as he has found a completely new way to utilize it. In Bruner’s hands, his 6-string bass operates more like three different instruments. There were the traditional bass parts he laid down on his more straightforward tunes, like the hard-grooving “Them Changes” and the funny “Friend Zone,” but then he’d play his instrument like a jazz piano, hopping from chord to chord at a rapid-fire rate. When he’d step up for a solo, he became a horn player, the bass awash in effects as he’d bust out sweeping runs of notes like something out of John Coltrane might have done if he’d grown up playing video games and watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Jazz powerhouse Robert Glasper made an unannounced appearance mid-set, taking control of the stage as soon as he sat down at the piano and leading Bruner and Brown on a twisting, shifting improvisation that had some jaws glued to the floor, and returned later pre-encore to back Bruner up on drums after Chappelle said, “Thundercat, take this bass solo wherever you wanna go, ’cause we with you all the way, my brother, for real.” Comedian Hannibal Buress, a long-time friend of Bruner’s also made an appearance, delivering a short stand-up set after opener Zack Fox.
Many have described Thundercat’s music with some variant of the moniker “cosmic funk,” yet that does it a disservice. Parliament-Funkadelic took funk music to outer space, but at Irving Plaza Thundercat was scoring a journey through a whole other dimension. From teases of Kendrick Lamar songs, covers of frequent collaborator Flying Lotus (who could be spotted side stage for most of the show), and jammed out performances of his own tunes like “Lone Wolf and Cub” or “Daylight,” Bruner led the packed room in a psychedelic experience few artists tagged with that label ever actually achieve. Each moment seemed to build upon the one before, each funky singalong bled into each virtuosic jam and the groove was so powerful, so locked in, that standing still never really felt like an option. If the mounting success of artists like Thundercat can be taken as a sign, then music is in for some real adventures.