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alexcooper
8th April 2024

Thundercat live in Manchester: Bassist of all time?

The man that changed how hip-hop sounds forever brings improvisational, progressive jazz to roaring crowds in Manchester
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Thundercat live in Manchester: Bassist of all time?
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

Thundercat isn’t a chameleon, or clad in camouflage; instead of blending in, he sticks out. Stephen Bruner leans into his idiosyncrasies, his obsessions, and his humour, all feeding into music that is unmistakably, unapologetically, remarkably himself. He wears his heart on his six-string bass.

For the uninitiated, Thundercat’s fingerprints can be heard across a large portion of critically acclaimed music from the last ten years. The spongy but smooth basslines on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly? Him. Collaborations with Silk Sonic, Kamasi Washington, and Kaytranada? Him. The bass lick on ‘What’s the Use?’ by the late, great Mac Miller? It can only be Thundercat.

His CV doesn’t fit on a page, and his feature on any track is the gold seal. He’s comfortable as a session musician, a special guest, and takes centre stage himself. And when he does the latter as he did in Manchester, magic happens.

Donning a Dragonball Durag, a Phoebe Bridgers-style skeleton top, and his comically large six-string bass seemingly attached to him, Thundercat walked on stage flanked by keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer Justin Brown. The three set up like an improvisational jazz trio, with added star power from Thundercat. Opening with the first two tracks from his last album, It Is What It Is, with ‘Lost In Space / Great Scott / 22-26’ and ‘Interstellar Love’, the crowd were warmed into what became a prog jazz gig in disguise.

thundercat
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

On his records, Thundercat doesn’t hang about. His songs make you wish they were longer, rarely clocking in over three minutes. Live, however, the songs take on a new life. The trio perform the song, setting up space to improvise and create something new from something known. Every song featured a period of jamming, each instrumentalist battling harmoniously, keeping everything going, and then seamlessly dropping back into the song. Thundercat’s recorded material almost acted as bookends.

Despite the decadence and the challenge of the setup, Thundercat’s warm persona provided a lot of levity. Not only did he contextualise the songs, but he also cracked jokes as good as, if not better than, most comedians. One-liners like “Have you guys ever fallen out of a trash can?” and referencing SpongeBob and Jake Paul had the crowd creased. Thundercat’s show was a complete experience, with so much fun along the way. His feline anime background with lit eyes promoted his aesthetic, even dedicating a song and the whole show to the recently departed Dragon Ball Z artist Akira Toriyama.

thundercat
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

Thundercat is also keen to cite his friends, playing ‘Isn’t It Strange’, a collaboration with Pedro Martins, which he explains is the true ending to It Is What It Is. He’s an artist’s artist, as well as a crowd pleaser; there aren’t many jazz or jazz-adjacent acts that could pack out in a setup like Victoria Warehouse, especially not on an album cycle.

The jamming periods of songs gave me so much time to think. It’s a privilege to have live music that isn’t forcing a dominant narrative but instead is so open to interpretation. Despite some punters resorting to checking their emails in some of the longer improvisations, most got lost in the intricacies, and surely thought deeply and intimately. Some things come to you during a drum solo.

thundercat
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

The tail end of the set was packed with the hits, however. A run of the delusional ode ‘Dragonball Durag’, onto two unreleased songs, then into ‘Black Qualls’ and ‘Funny Thing’ got the 3,500-strong crowd properly moving. “I just want to party with you”, is less a lyric and more an affirmation for the audience.

thundercat
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

Then came the aching, searching, squelching bassfest of ‘Them Changes’, sped up by TikTok and propelled into a new consciousness. Thundercat played it straight and missed out lyrics for the crowd to sing with showmanship, but came in extra hot on the solo, playing high up the fretboard and subverting expectation. To play bass like he does, sing with incredible range like he does, and have synergy with his cohorts like he does, is supernatural. What he does is truly a one-off, and there isn’t a show like it.

thundercat
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

A final rendition of Tame Impala collaboration ‘No More Lies’, and Thundercat walked off much as he walked on, his bass attached to him. It wouldn’t be surprising if they sleep in the same bed, because in a musical context, Thundercat will go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest and most creative bassists to witness. The live show is remarkable, but just another string to his bow, or maybe his bass. Is seven too many?

Alex Cooper

Alex Cooper

Head Music Editor and Writer for the Mancunion. Once walked past Nick Cave in Zagreb. Enquiries: [email protected]

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