By Alex Cooper
After all too familiar world events postponed Thundercat’s 2021 UK Tour, he finally graced the stage at Manchester Academy on April 1st. Real name Stephen Bruner, Thundercat is well known for his unique use of the bass guitar, influencing the hip hop sphere and beyond. His mark can be heard over seminal records by artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller.
As a solo artist, however, he combines elements of soul, jazz, and funk, and has produced critically acclaimed records such as Drunk and It is What It Is, the latter of which won a Grammy in 2021. The world of Thundercat has much to explore; he incorporates many genres into his work while being enjoyed by a large audience, reflected in the packed-out crowd in Manchester, the penultimate stop before a sold-out Brixton Academy.
The crowd filed into the sounds of a DJ set by local MC Konny Kon, which got the audience suitably hyped up for the evening that was to come. Main support came from English-Japanese artist Miso Extra, who donned matching jerseys with her band, and held the decently packed-out crowd with her effortless flows and catchy instrumentals, punchy beats, and manipulated instrumentals – creating a dream-like soundscape. Performing on the release day of her debut EP, Great Taste, Miso Extra looked to be having a great time on stage, engaging the crowd with bilingual lyrics with Lily Allen style delivery. By the time it was time for her slot to end, it felt like barely any time had elapsed, and left the crowd very up for the evening ahead. Miso Extra’s Great Taste EP is on Spotify now.
Approximately 40 minutes later, a nonchalant Thundercat walks on stage without much fanfare and charmingly asks, ‘You guys doing well? Manchester right?’. Perhaps this opening remark was only charming since he got the city right, and didn’t fall at the first hurdle. Afterwards, he immediately plunges into the opening run of It Is What It Is, playing intro ‘Lost in Space / Great Scott / 22-26’ seamlessly into ‘Interstellar Love’, constructing the tone of the evening before our eyes.
A wide and rich sound emerges from his six-string bass, and the familiarity of the studio recordings descends into a jam with his keyboardist and drummer while keeping the thread of the song. The paired back stage lighting made everything feel much more improvised, suiting the music. Some in the audience were bemused, but it soon became abundantly clear we were witnessing a masterclass.
Thundercat’s playfulness didn’t stop just musically; he told stories in between songs at considerable length. “All my friends are dead”, he joked after only two songs in the introduction anecdote to the ode to his best friend ‘I Love Louis Cole’; receiving a half laugh-gasp from the audience. However, the crowd ran with him for the most part, save for some talking over him in the more lengthy breaks. These breaks provided light relief but also texture, as the lengthened renditions of album tracks were incredible but very intense. Another highlight included a toy shark being thrown on stage, and the drummer keeping it on one of his drums for the rest of the set; it was equal parts funny and musically impressive.
It became clear that Thundercat’s set was just an incredibly well-drilled show, and if you ran with it, the reward was immense. Each band member relied upon nods and winks from the others, much like a jazz gig, and in chaos came an incredible live experience. Dropping hit ‘Dragonball Durag’ early in the set, the whole crowd started dancing, and we became part of the improvisation, voluntarily shouting lines back to him (including “I know I’m covered in cat hair, but I still smell good”, which has to be a first at the Academy).
Another first was during ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’ in the middle of the set, Bruner stops the music and demands that the audience show him pictures of their cats. Automatically and without question, people started putting their phone screens in the direction of the stage, Bruner complimenting a selection. My own cat was overlooked, but maybe next time.
Through the laughs and the fun came a moment of homage, with Bruner dedicating his song ‘A Message for Austin’, about late friend Austin Peralta to Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, regarding his influence on his own upbringing as well as friends and contemporaries Mac Miller and MF DOOM. Thundercat celebrates his cohorts with warmth and recognition. He has built a career on collaboration, meticulously referencing throughout the set of individuals who he looks up to. The audience was left with a sense of community, but also a considerable amount of musical homework to enjoy.
The gig ticks along, with the audience feeding off the energy of the extended tracks, when Bruner comes in with the distinctive bass riff of the massive hit ‘Them Changes’. ‘You know it? Sing along!’, he understatedly says with a smile. The energy elevates and it becomes a moment of collective catharsis, further elevated by the incredible bass solo that has become customary but no less mind-blowing. This was the highlight of the gig for me. This transitions into the set closer ‘Funny Thing’, with an increase in tempo and equal feedback from the crowd. The 1 minute 56-second album track becomes a five times longer jazz disco party, forming a call and response with the line “I just wanna party with you”. By the time it comes to a close, the crowd are at a fever pitch, and Bruner and his band leave the stage.
Hearing the demands of ‘one more song’, an encore of 2013’s ‘Tron Song’ is performed. A totally effortless continuation of the previous hour and a half, Bruner looks like he’s barely broken a sweat. A somewhat uncalled for mosh pit is formed, which quickly fizzles out due to it not being that kind of gig at all, and the participants opt for dancing instead. After one final flourish, he bids his farewell, and we filtered out onto Oxford Road knowing that we had seen something incredible and joyful.
I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. Thundercat brings a jazz mentality to his live performances, breathing new life into his songs and cementing his place as one of the finest and still underrated artists. Suddenly his resume seems like an understatement; his musical talent is borderline supernatural and produces a unique live show. I think it’s probably the most creative gig I’ve been to, and remarkably still completely accessible and enjoyable. Thundercat created an atmosphere that left you just wanting to party with him.
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