You may not recognise the name Thundercat but I guarantee you have heard his music. The Los Angeles multi-genre bass player has produced for some of the biggest names in the industry. With collaborations with the likes of Kamasi Washington, Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus and, of course, Kendrick Lamar, I could tell his headline At Max Watts in Melbourne was a must-see show. Thundercat is the genius behind the best album of 2015, in my opinion anyway, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. His appearance in Australia coincided with Laneway Festival – and promotion of his latest album The Beyond/Where Giants Roam. With all this in mind, I knew, something special was going to happen.
I caught the shows opener, Silent Jay, when he supported JMSN last year and was keen to see him perform again. This excitement rose when I saw that frequent collaborator Jace Excell had joined him onstage (You may recognise Jace if you’ve seen Hiatus Kaiyote live) on vocals. Together, these two produce some of the most soulful and chill music out there. They were an excellent choice to open, although I did feel bad for how cramped in front of Thundercat’s setup they looked. Though, they made it work.
I don’t think the lights even went down, Thundercat was just suddenly there. Wearing a piece that reminding me of a cross between a Dragon Ball Z costume and Michael Jackson’s jacket from Thriller, Thundercat beamed at the crowd and gave a nod to the front row. Are you ready for this? He riffed down the massive bass guitar in his hands and it was like a wall of sound hit me.This show felt like watching a master at work, jamming in studio. Songs flowed into each other, and were heavily freestyled. What I really enjoyed was the revisitation of songs throughout the show, such as ‘Tron Song’. Tracks from the new album, such as the lead single ‘Them Changes’ flowed beautifully in this free genre landscape. Gentle nods to Kendrick Lamar (Complexion (A Zulu Love)) and Flying Lotus (MmmHmm) broke the audiences trance and were met with cheers.
It was not so much a show, rather more of a performance. Banter was kept to a minimum, and at times felt awkward, but not in a bad way. It just felt very clear that Thundercat would rather just play consistently than force conversation. He did get some zingers in there though, a quiet jab at Kanye West’s new album title received applause from the audience.
What struck me about Thundercat’s performance was how minimal it was visually. No complex lighting, no smoke, no video background. Without these, the music spoke for itself and the crowd were transfixed. I’ve never seen a crowd so still and in the moment. The minute Thundercat picked up his massive bass, he had the crowd wowed. I found myself staring at this amazing performer. His face was so consumed in the music. Feeling every measure, note and moment. It was a privilege to watch. So much of the performance felt fresh and experimental, like a jam session in a studio. Thundercat ended up playing almost half an hour over the allotted time, much to the delight of everyone. I don’t think anyone wanted that performance to end. An incredible performer in his element, and I hope he returns to Australia soon.