Published Jul 17, 2016Thundercat — the stage name of Stephen Bruner — is the sort of musician who, on resumé alone, deserves attention. The bass guru has performed and collaborated on Kamasi Washington's The Epic, multiple Flying Lotus records, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and many others, in addition to his own acclaimed solo work. But he was fine if the Halifax Jazz Fest audience Saturday night (July 16) was a little distracted.
"Feel free to catch Pokémon during the set," Bruner began, referencing the Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game that has become an international phenomenon in the last week — even in Canada, where it's technically not even available for sale. (There are workarounds.) "I was serious about that Pokémon thing," Bruner added. "My phone is on right now."
It wasn't the only time in the set that Bruner showed his geeky pop-culture bonafides. Later, he and his band (Dennis Hamm on keys and Justin Brown on drums) covered the end theme to Adventure Time. And Bruner also joked (or not?) about the inspiration for the album he's currently working on: "I'm not going to tell you anything about it yet," he said, "but it's definitely about Voltron."
There are musicians who make their craft look easy, and then there are those where you can see the work. Bruner is the latter: performing on a six-string bass, he played with gritted teeth as his fingers flew at almost absurd speeds across the strings. Songs like opener "Hard Times," from last year's The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam, started soft and soulful, with Bruner's falsetto vocals sweetly filling the warm summer air, but would be followed by manic escalations, a cascade of notes delivered with virtuosic force.
Bruner knows his way into a pop hook — a song like "Heartbreaks + Setbacks" from 2013's Apocalypse played as super catchy — but most of the set's best moments were in the tour-de-force solos.
An exception: when Bruner showed things down to perform the hook from Kendrick Lamar's "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," asking the audience to throw up peace signs with their fingers. "We need that right now more than anything," he said. It was a poignant moment — which was then pulled into another exhilarating sonic whirlwind that left much of the crowd impressed and in awe.