REVIEW: Thundercat storms 1015 Folsom with hard-hitting rhythm, smooth style

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Thundercat, Stephen Lee Bruner

Thundercat performs at 1015 Folsom in San Francisco on Dec. 20, 2018. Photos: Shawn Robbins.

SAN FRANCISCO — The mighty Thundercat, the virtuoso bassist and bandleader known for collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus, led his trio in a blistering live performance at 1015 Folsom Thursday. Touring in support of his most recent album, 2017’s Drunk, Stephen Bruner and his group lived up to its reputation as an experience not to be missed, with catchy songs from Thundercat’s three albums interjected liberally with long stretches of improvisation and experimentation.

“Fuck, it smells like weed” Bruner said, grinning, after he took to the stage. He then led the band into the opening Drunk track, “Rabbot Ho,” played faster and leaner than on the album—more Bad Brains than Stevie Wonder. Following this, the band stretched out into a virtuosic high-speed instrumental jam, stage lights flashing red and Bruner bobbing his head in concentration above his giant six-string bass guitar, his white cap and bleached, dangling dreads changing color with the lights.

Thundercat, Stephen Lee Bruner

Thundercat performs at 1015 Folsom in San Francisco on Dec. 20, 2018.

Despite Thundercat’s collaborations with some of your dad’s radio favorites (Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald join for a song on Drunk), this wasn’t your dad’s jam-rock band. The furious energy and pummeling drums are as reminiscent of Sonic Youth as Herbie Hancock. Thundercat’s sound is an original mix of ’70s jazz, ’80s pop and ’90s punk and funk.

Constant tempo and chord changes, and bursts of experimentation, kept fans guessing. Mellow harmonies alternated with minor key moods and  catchy tunes carried by Thundercat’s soulful R&B falsetto. The bittersweet songs had a self-deprecating sense of humor that kept them from getting weighed down with their own emotion.

And there was emotion both on and off the stage: Stephen Bruner took a moment to give a shoutout to the recently departed rapper Mac Miller, one of Bruner’s friends and musical collaborators. Bruner also took time to give a nod to Kendrick Lamar, dipping into a segment of “These Walls” that recalled Thundercat’s role as one of the most valuable session players of our time.

But this was Thundercat’s night. His band, consisting of phenomenal drummer Justin Brown (a Bay Area native) and keyboardist Dennis Hamm, provided both raw power and tons of atmosphere.

Like Bay Area favorite Toro y Moi, Thundercat bathed his sound in electronica that evoked analog nostalgia, even as the band coaxed fresh effects from swirling flangers and crisp beats.

Thundercat, Stephen Lee Bruner

Thundercat performs at 1015 Folsom in San Francisco on Dec. 20, 2018.

After taking their time weaving in and out of songs and stretches of deep improvisational groove, the band let the crowd have a couple of the catchier tunes off Drunk, starting with a stripped-down version of “Tokyo,” a chiptune-inflected tribute to the city of anime and neon. The song was sped up from the album version with double-time drumming. Bruner stopped the band to slowly play its most creepy verse solo: “It was premeditated, tried to get someone pregnant/ It wasn’t her fault, I’m just kind of psychotic.”

From here, Bruner bantered with the audience, asking “Anybody here lost their girlfriend because of playing Nintendo?” This was a prelude to an anthem for American otaku, “Friend Zone.” Probably the catchiest cut from Drunk, it’s a wry take on being that guy who is trusted enough to get a little too much intimacy coming from his female friends and has to remind them he’s got … feelings. This was followed with “Blood on the Floor,” which had fans singing along to its heart-on-the-sleeve chorus: “Now I’m sitting here with a black hole in my chest/ A heartless, broken mess.”

Thundercat, Stephen Lee Bruner

Thundercat performs at 1015 Folsom in San Francisco on Dec. 20, 2018.

Upstairs at 1015 Folsom, people danced. Below, the floor was packed. A few had their heads bent down and closed their eyes during the instrumental jams, as the trio produced a wall of sound that could easily send you into a musical trance state.

Oakland’s Same Girls preceded the headliners and played a high-energy set of indie rock with a variety of post-punk, Britpop and funk shadings, led by charismatic frontman Taifa Nia. On “Sailing,” he busted out a rock falsetto that’s right up there with Thundercat’s. By the last song the group had the crowd pogoing and nearly slam dancing.

Bay Area hip-hop producer Drew Banga led a live band, playing bass and rhyming. He was accompanied by drums, keys and guitar in a blend of classic soul and R&B sounds and live hip-hop grooves. Banga’s drummer let loose with driving, syncopated solos and the keyboardist with jazz flourishes.

Comedian Zack Fox, who is touring with Thundercat, warmed up the crowd just before the main act went on. His wisecracks included some shots at San Francisco’s cocaine users that might have played better if we hadn’t heard it from Dave Chapelle more than a decade ago. But jokes about life in L.A. (where if you’re too broke you can’t get into the orgy) and Atlanta (where you can get held up not for your phone, but for your phone number) got the laughs.

Follow reporter Justin Allen at Twitter.com/_justinallen_ and justinallen.usFollow photographer Shawn Robbins at Instagram.com/photo_robbins and Twitter.com/ShawnTheRobbins.

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