Words by John William Mabery
A bass guitar rests on its stand, center stage, partially lit. The ax in question is a six-string partial-hollowbody with a variation of the Thundercat’s logo on the back. It’s a beautiful piece of hardware. Its owner and master is Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat. That nickname, supposedly bequeathed to him by Erykah Badu, is the result of a lifelong obsession with the cartoon of the same name. When he took the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Monday, November 25th, Bruner’s mastery of that aforementioned hardware was on full display.
Currently in the midst of his Fall North American tour, Bruner – who was last seen in the greater New York area this past May, supporting his friend and frequent collaborator Flying Lotus – took the stage around 10:30 p.m. to a jam packed crowd to play songs from his two solo albums, The Golden Age of the Apocalypse (2011) and Apocalypse (2013).
The music that Bruner plays is a mixture of fusion, jazz, and soul. It pays homage to the golden era of those styles without feeling like a throwback. With a broad musical background, Bruner is a true virtuoso. When he rips a solo, it’s almost as if he goes to another place, someplace spiritual. He comes out of the trance to sing in his miraculous falsetto, to marvel at the interplay with the two men who share the stage with him, or make faces at the people in the front row. He rocks a Hendrix-esque felt brimmed hat and – you guessed it – an outline tattoo of the Thundercat’s logo on his strumming hand.
The two men behind Bruner are keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer and brother Ronald Bruner Jr. To call them a “backing band” would hardly do them justice. Hamm is a suitable replacement for the late Austin Peralta, juxtaposing Bruner’s elastic bass lines with his own soaring melodies on his Fender Rhodes. Ronald, the elder Bruner brother, is a powerhouse in the vein of Lenny White or Tony Williams, offering up a thunderous solo during “Lotus and the Jondy.” The synchronicity of the band is spectacular; no cues are necessary at any point. This was never more evident during the middle portion of the set, where the band transitioned seamlessly from one song to the next as if playing a medley. This included material from both albums, extended improvisation from Bruner and Hamm, as well as “DMT Song” from Flying Lotus’ Until The Quiet Comes, on which Bruner performed bass and vocal duties. Though it is Thundercat who takes center stage, whose logo is represented on the bass drum, it is very much a collective effort.
The event, which its 18+, was packed with a crowd that averaged just north of the age restriction. I mention this because no matter how they came to discover Thundercat, whether it be through college radio, his association with established artists, or his work that can be heard on Adult Swim programs, it gives one hope for this generation of music listeners; one that is more than likely going to explore and discover classic fusion, jazz, soul records because of their love for this single musician. They belted out all the words to “Lotus…,” danced and jumped around to “Oh Sheit It’s X,” and marveled at the solos. When the band left the stage, the crowd, still buzzing from the last song, started chanting the name of a comic that was famous ten years before most of them were born. And Stephen Bruner, a bass virtuoso and comic book nerd alike, who has found his niche as Thundercat, was more than happy to oblige.