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Governors Ball 2016: Thundercat

By Michael L. McGlathery
By Michael L. McGlathery, Crimson Staff Writer

Bassist/singer/jazz-fusion savant Stephen Bruner (a.k.a. Thundercat) enjoyed a real wave of success in 2015—as an extensive session musician for Kendrick Lamar’s now-legendary “To Pimp a Butterfly,” he experienced a big jump in exposure. Capitalizing on that, he released his brilliant third album, “The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam.” This was the year Thundercat started to rise beyond, in popular awareness, his former role as Flying Lotus’s zany right-hand man at progressive jazz/electronic record label Brainfeeder. Thundercat started the year opening sold-out shows in small venues for FlyLo and soon became impossible to deny as a titanic force of his own.

Thundercat’s exuberant performance on Saturday made clear that he’s comfortable in this position and still wants more. The set list showcased the depth that his discography has already taken on, even as he limited himself to a 6-song set. Thundercat has largely made his name as a session musician, having collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Mac Miller, and Suicidal Tendencies in addition to the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar, but you haven’t really gotten to know Thundercat without seeing him live. His three-piece band—he’s joined live by raucous drummer Justin Brown and slick keyboardist Dennis Hamm—injects the smooth soul inflections of his studio compositions with a roiling jazz-fusion energy. Thundercat’s harmonically complex songs become even more nuanced and rhythmically adventurous, with the band opening up almost every song in order to shred solos over the changes for a few minutes. It’s a pleasure to watch—and judging from the mannerisms of the performers, who grin and grimace in pleasure at each other’s musical inventions, it’s a pleasure to perform too. Brown’s lively, amped-up drumming gave the group a visceral sucker-punch kind of energy, while Hamm took a low-key backseat in keeping the songs tightly mellifluent. While some of Thundercat’s studio recordings evoke R&B legends like Marvin Gaye, the live performance called to mind Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever” or a jamming Pat Metheny.

The group’s performance wasn’t simply a dive into the jazz-fusion rabbit hole, though. The trio remained keenly aware of Thundercat’s place in pop culture, not neglecting to cover the track “Complexion” off of Lamar’s “TPAB” (to which Thundercat of course contributed). During that song Thundercat shouted out the name of Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment—he knows he’s closely aligned with them in many people’s minds, and he likes it. The small amount cross-pollination between Brainfeeder, Thundercat’s label, and TDE that’s occurred thus far has borne wonderful fruit, and hearing the bassist craft a beautiful solo over “Complexion” was a gleaming example of that. The real cultural and emotional epicenter of the set, though, was when the group performed Thundercat’s most popular original song, “Heartbreaks + Setbacks.” A truly heavenly composition, “Heartbreaks” is possibly the most uplifting and heartening song of mourning released in the past ten years. Hearing Bruner’s pure voice rising above a melancholy soundscape singing “You know we tried way too hard to find / A love that’s really blind / So why even try? / Because we know / That there’s still hope / Just don’t let go” was an experience truly in tune with the hopeful liberation of love. Thundercat’s come to spread the love, and he’s got a new LP with Flying Lotus on the way. He’s here to stay.

—Staff writer Michael L. McGlathery can be reached at

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