There’s no reason for Thundercat to be as charming and kind as she is. An artist of his stature who can command a performance venue as large as the Salt Shack can easily greet the audience and empower them with his songs. And his advanced jazz music doesn’t necessarily signal or require lively, lively crowd work.
But Stephen Lee Bruner, who performs under the stage name Thundercat, is here (wonderfully) to connect his audiences with music and meaning back music. This is not an artist who wants or needs to hide in the shadows. No, Bruner is eager to share the humor and heartbreak that has kept his music compelling for more than a decade.
“Am I talking too much?” he asked at one point. Conversation was on the menu. From numerous animation references to details of his first trip to Tokyo, Bruner isn’t afraid to share pieces of himself in his eclectic sounds.
Thursday night’s 90-plus-minute set was filled with eclecticism. With a vibrant stage setup that includes a massive, stage-wide structure and a mesmerizing and psychedelic light show, Thundercat’s “In Yo Girl’s City” tour is sure to treat fans to a sensory treat.
In recent years, Thundercat has transitioned somewhat into the mainstream due to the popularity of songs like “Them Changes” (which he performed) and “Funny Thing”. This totally makes sense. Although both songs are almost oddly structured, they are some of Bruner’s most accessible and straightforward. And each one serves as the perfect showcase for her harmonious and very endearing voice.
That voice and his signature falsetto were on display during Thursday night’s show. Tracks such as “Tokyo” from the 2017 album “Drunk” and “Dragonball Durag” from the 2020 album “It Is What It Is” were the center of attention. Many new fans in the audience who were first introduced to Thundercat by her melodic, vocal-heavy songs featured prominently on social media were invigorated by these moments. Many audience members, including the two guys next to me, even pulled out their phones and recorded each song in its entirety, watching the performance on the handheld screen where they probably first discovered it.
But I was most intrigued by how deeply rooted Thundercat is and always will be in jazz traditions. At the beginning of the show, he dove into a batch of instrumental-heavy songs like “Interstellar Love” and “How Sway.” From there, he was able to delve deeper into improvisation with his accompanying keyboardist and percussionist.
The crazy light show paired with music set the stage for the night. Even on tracks with more traditional song structures, he always gave ample room for improvised-sounding moments to develop. A song didn’t just end. A song could take the listener on a journey, and what a journey it was.
I was happy and reassured by a musician who, despite his new and broader appeal, was not afraid to show off what he knew and loved. And in between those moments, it gave the context of what created the song.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of the night occurred during his performance of the song “A message for Austin / Praise the Lord / Enter the Void”. The track, which was first included on his second album “Apocalypse” in 2013, was written in memory of the late musician Austin Peralta, who died in 2012. Longtime fans of Thundercat know the track, but Bruner provided additional context during the show: He informs the audience that he samples the late Ryuichi Sakamoto of the influential band Yellow Magic Orchestra. He talked about how he was able to let Sakamoto know that he sampled his music and the importance of that moment.
This performance was, in some ways, a double tribute to the deceased friend and, indirectly, to the influence that made the song possible. Like most of his slapstick moments, it showed Thundercat that the artist wasn’t just about the voice. There’s a history of culture in his music, from animé and Compton to Japanese synth bands and the “mile high club,” that somehow comes together and works.
Britt Julious is a freelance critic.