Despite moments of pandering, the bass god delivered a dazzling performance to a sell-out crowd at Tipitina's on Friday.
“How many of y’all drink 151?” asked Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, half-way through his set at Tipitina’s Friday night. The crowd responded convincingly. Bruner laughed, made a friendly joke about New Orleans, and moved on with the show.
Bruner changes his look to shake things up, and Friday he rocked a haircut somewhere between Lil Yachty and Danny Brown, a red flannel shirt, blue shorts with red fringed hems, and red Chuck Taylors imprinted with his logo.
The through line of his aesthetic has always been silliness. He loves cats, geeks out over anime, and makes bizarre videos with Eric Andre. Amid all his antics, it can be easy to forget that he’s one of the best musicians on the planet.
Bruner is a jazz bassist on tour for his first pop album, Drunk. Traditionally, that hasn’t been a recipe for success. Jazz purists get offended by crossover efforts, and aside from transcendental titans like Herbie Hancock (who plays the Orpheum this Sunday), most jazzers who attempt to make the switch do not fare well in the mainstream.
But Thundercat is no ordinary jazz musician, and Drunk is far from a run-of-the-mill pop record. It’s full of weird one-minute interludes, earnest falsetto oohs and ahhs, and of course, extended bass freakouts. Still, it’s a far cry from jazz. Elements of funk, hip-hop, and even yacht rock pepper the project, pushing its pop appeal higher than on any of his previous efforts.
Though many of the songs do discuss drinking, Bruner has said in interviews that the album’s title refers more to a general feeling of disorientation in today’s world than to the actual experience of getting wasted. “Bus in These Streets,” for instance, deals with the power technology has over us, stealing hours of our lives, like a blackout. The album’s less obvious messages were mostly obscured on Friday, though, as Bruner opted to play up the drinking element instead.
Thundercat’s set on Friday was heavily Drunk, but he never looked inebriated. At the show’s lamest moments, he pandered to the sell-out crowd’s drunkenness and to New Orleans drinking stereotypes. To his credit, though, he never mentioned to-go cups or drive-through daqs, and he never let the booze talk get in the way of his musicianship.
Alcohol may have been the headliner, but Bruner’s bass-playing stole the show. There were points in his virtuosic solos where he seemed to be channeling some higher power, a feline deity whose vehicle happens to be Bruner’s six-string. He wielded it like a weapon, crouching in an attack position to fire out licks that really shouldn’t be possible. It was about as close as live music can get to an out-of-body experience with no foreign substance needed.
The band members had their fair share of chops too. Bruner introduced them near the end of the show, starting with his usual touring keyboardist and drummer, Dennis Hamm and Justin Brown. Next, he announced the “rare” presence of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, an accomplished composer and multi-instrumentalist who did some of the string arrangements on Drunk, and played violin and viola on two tracks.
Atwood-Ferguson was in the background for most of the show, standing directly behind Bruner and contributing mostly textural and harmonic support with his tricked-out, futuristic electric violin. The few solos he did take were never as showy as Bruner’s, but they demonstrated a tasteful grasp of the ethereal Thundercat sound.
“…And I’m Mac DeMarco,” Bruner joked, finishing off his introductions. It was a more ironic statement than he may have realized. Mac DeMarco played the Orpheum in September, and while Bruner’s set was a musical seminar on intoxication, DeMarco’s was the real thing.
That’s not a knock on DeMarco. Getting hammered and having a good time is part of what makes him such a fun performer. But that’s not who Bruner is. Like DeMarco, he’s got a great sense of humor, but it’s not his main act. His audience interaction was minimal on Friday, and he seemed much more comfortable monologuing than going back and forth with fans.
He delivered the longest of these monologues before “Tokyo,” shouting out "any black kid who's ever tried to go Super Saiyan." He then launched into the track, but stopped it half-way through to repeat the second verse, saying “Imma run this one back. This all really happened.”
The verse begins: “It was premeditated, tried to get someone pregnant. / It wasn’t her fault, I’m just kind of psychotic. / Left on my own, I would never come back. / I’d probably hide out in the suicide forest.” It’s the most puzzling lyric on the album, and even in context, it hardly relates to the rest of the song, a goofy ode to sushi and Dragonball Z. The fact that he ran through the verse twice means it isn’t just a throw-away, and that it could help unlock some of the album’s hidden messages. But that was the only such moment all night.
Thundercat is pushing the party persona hard on this tour. In the past, I’ve been puzzled by his choice to devote a significant portion of his set to the repetitive deep cut “Lotus and the Jondy.” This time, he went the opposite direction and sold out for “Drink Dat,” the party anthem that is far and away the worst thing he’s ever put out. The crowd ate it up though, singing along at full volume.
Bruner ended the set with his two biggest hits, “Them Changes” and “Oh Sheit It’s X.” He’d already played “Tron Song” and reprised his roles on Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” and “Complexion,” so there didn’t seem to be any room for an encore. But the stage lights stayed on after the band walked off, and they were back momentarily.
They closed out with abridged versions of “The Turn Down” (which features Pharrell on the album) and “Show You the Way” (minus the studio performances of Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald). Without the star power, playing these tracks in full was impossible, but together they functioned as a neat little coda to the evening.
Bruner managed to get one last drinking bit in, using the “Show You the Way” outro (barely audible on the recording) as his closing lines.
“If you’re going to fill your water bottle with vodka,” he said, “Always make sure you have a friend with a water bottle that actually has water in it.” It’s a confusing bit of advice that doesn’t do much for the song. Like the rest of the booze stuff, it was a minor distraction from an otherwise incredible performance.