“Do you think he’ll be casual or go full robes?”
“I hope robes”
“Yeah, I hope robes too”
A brief, strange dialogue which murmurs through the crowd as the lights go down and Stephen Bruner steps out on to the stage as his Bizzaro alter-ego Thundercat. As he steps into the spotlight sparkling from the waist up, it turns out that the robes are absent tonight, the beaming Californian clad instead in a jacket that glitters like a discoball atop a pair of Muay Thai shorts. Wide shoulders hunched over a guitar seemingly proportioned by an overzealous anime artist, the whole thing is finished off with a pair of shades and a red cap that looks like exactly what you’d get if you selected “Red Cap” from a customisation tab in an early noughties videogame. The sum total is a hybrid of the crazed costume of the pop culture he draws on and the laid back gear of the dude who sits and consumes it – an exact visual equivalent of his musical style.
The opening track to his latest album ‘Rabbit Ho’ is perfectly tailored to its purpose. Thundercat’s strange, high vocals drifting out from the speakers or the stage immediately draw you in to his weird inner world of jazz drums and Dragonball, and tonight he tears straight from there into a revved up rendition of ‘Captain Stupido’. The album version would have made for an excited, hook-heavy opener and a stone cold killer of a cold open when paired with ‘Rabbit Ho’. Instead of settling for this assured success, he immediately ramps up the tempo, fingers flashing up and down the six strings of his bass guitar while his voice chases smoothly after their manic pace, creating an adrenaline-fuelled, jacked-up new iteration.
The ambition, improvisation and energy of this opening blitz sets the tone for the night. Artists big enough to fill ABC’s main room – especially those who’ve travelled far as part of a packed tour – are often content to turn up and tick through their setlist with finely tuned recitals. Artists like Thundercat, on the other hand, bring the tools to build sounds from scratch and revel in the sandbox of the stage – acting on the fly, improvising and embellishing to stretch and warp the tracks you know. Rather than memorised recital, Thundercat’s performances feel like spontaneous re-creation.
It’s an especially impressive feat when working from an album like ‘Drunk’, a work that feels like if the sound effects from classic anime and old school arcades games merged with funk bass lines and drifted off together into outer space on an unused radio frequency, sucked up by an alien ship and processed into genre-melting, half-comedic, electronic, jazz-infused, weirdo soul-rap. It sounds like it must be made with glimmering sci-fi machinery and all kinds of techno trickery, so watching it created live on stage, plucked and played with by a simple four-piece is genuinely astonishing.
From there, Thundercat and co wheel through a selection drawn largely from the latest album, regularly spinning off from the original track on to a whole new pathway of instrumental improvisation. Just as you worry he might be wandering too far into unmarked territory for the crowd to follow, he pulls a 180 and flips back to the familiar ground of ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘Jameel’s Space Ride’, reaching back to grab stragglers with call-and-response ready tunes like ‘Drink That’ and ‘A Fan’s Mail’. Watching him playfully pull a room full of tanked up Glaswegians into singing along to the “Meow Meow Meow” of his musical tribute to how cool it would be to be a cat is an oddity worth paying twice the ticket price for all by itself.
He’s at his best when he plays with the audience like that, preceding ‘Drink That’ by asking whether anyone here likes a drink. “I guess that’s a little like asking if the ocean is wet, right?” he follows up, flashing that mad grin. Later on, while building to his sweetly cacophonic finale ‘Tokyo’, he converts the vast clubroom into a nerd cathedral, leading his congregation in a mass confessional – “Who else was fucking ruined by Goku?!” The place explodes in response, he throws off an impassioned cry of “Fuck Dragonball GT!” for good measure along with another burst of infectious laughter and fires into his ode to Japan’s futuristic geek haven.
‘Drunk’ is out now via Brainfeeder