When Thundercat last played New York the show came on the heels of the release of his excellent album Drunk, saw guest appearances from comedians Dave Chappelle and Hannibal Buress along with pianist and record producer Robert Glasper, and left just about everyone in the room scraping up their jaw from the floor by the end of things. The seven months since that night have seen Thundercat – the stage name of bass extraordinaire Stephen Bruner – tour around the world, perform on late night talk shows and become more popular than ever, so it only made sense to swing back through the city on his fall tour, this time with a two-night stand at Brooklyn Steel.
While I had no illusions that lightning of the sort he and his band had produced back in March would be able to strike twice, the feeling that something was just off pervaded the Sunday night show. While no one thing brought the performance down, a confluence of factors seemed to come together to prevent it from ever really taking off. Brooklyn Steel is a venue that, with its high warehouse ceilings and expansive floor space, runs the risk of disengaging an audience from the artist if the place isn’t packed to the brim. It also did Thundercat’s sound no favors, causing the virtuosic auditory onslaughts that he and drummer Justin Brown would unleash on song after song to routinely reverberate into an unfortunate mess of sound.
For their part, though, Bruner and company performed with aplomb, stretching out their tentacles into the realms of funk, jazz, psychedelia, and beyond and testing the boundaries of their respective instruments in ways very few musicians are doing today. At some point this year, Thundercat also brought a violin player into the fold, a curious choice given the sonic realm he inhabits but one that added surprising new textures on songs like the goofy “A Fan’s Mail.” The sense of humor that underlies nearly all of Bruner’s music meant that even the longest, darkest excursions never devolved into self-seriousness and could quickly be brought back to a song about cats or a dance-your-ass-off funk jam.
While the crowd had begun to noticeably thin out towards the end of the night, those who stuck it out were treated to what was by far the strongest and most engaging portion of the show. The set-closing trio of “Tokyo,” “Friend Zone,” and “Oh Sheit it’s X” had many in the crowd who had spent the entire night standing still finally letting their body surrender to the infectious grooves and earned the night’s first real sing-alongs. That vibe would increase ten-fold when the musicians came back to the stage for an encore of the stellar “Them Changes,” which injected the show with the kind of delirious energy that would have worked wonders had it appeared earlier in the show.
When you’ve seen an artist deliver a truly transcendent performance anything less can feel particularly disappointing, but looking through that veil, Thundercat still ably showcased his formidable talents at Brooklyn Steel and continued an ascension that still, frankly, feels remarkable. Hopefully his next stop in New York will see Bruner and his band back at the height of their powers.