ACL Review: Thundercat

Bass prodigy resurrects Seventies fusion

Last November, somewhere in the hills of Sherwood Forest hours before the first and surely not last Sound on Sound Fest, Thundercat soundchecked to the trees, cool dappled morning, and maybe 10 of us stopped dead in our tracks. Not 365 days later, on Saturday at ACL Fest, the Tito’s tent in Zilker Park pivoted that scene 360 degrees.

Photo by Gary Miller

Six deep outside a tin shed hosting a HOF-caliber cavalcade of greats over the last decade – Shuggie Otis, Charles Bradley, Eek-A-Mouse – the mob scene for the weekend-one-only singer/bassist/producer resembled the return of Y2K to Downtown Austin. Of course the moment Los Angeles prodigy Stephen Bruner, 32, lit into his bass-n-drum soul-funk, the thinning of the herd began. By the end of the hour, little more than half of the throng remained, though the ring outside held at three people thick.

Any genre offshoot can birth a cult, but late-Sixties and Seventies jazz fusion proved a uniquely self-contained niche both mainstream and not. High-watt instrumentation coupled with arch-progressive improvisation took the jam band aesthetic to a whole new extreme and doubled the love/hate quotient. Thundercat courts a similar electro muse, but even those intuiting his generational greatness aren’t always demonstrating the festival bandwidth to plug into his sonic matrix.

His six-string bass alternately faced off against and lockstepped to Rhodes scholarly keys, chopped and screwed live drums, and a laptop attendant who literally fiddled. Racing tempos or classic R&B pacing, the quartet rose in melodic cacophony one moment, then cooed in sweet harmony the next. Crowd reaction compressed Cheech & Chong’s entire filmography into one mass smoke-out. Lightning clusters of notes from full-bore band scrums tag-teamed with all-time feline ode “A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song II),” Kendrick Lamar collabo “Complexion,” and a tumbler of “Drink Dat.”

All of it proved exceedingly potent, but then not everyone can handle a fifth of Thundercat.

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Thundercat, ACL Fest 2017, Stephen Bruner, Kendrick Lamar, Shuggie Otis, Charles Bradley, Eek-A-Mouse, Sound on Sound Fest 2016

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