Live Review: Thundercat at NZ Festival, Wellington

Thundercat Wellington
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Thundercat playing NZ Festival

Odlins Plaza, Wellington

Thursday 1 March 2018 (first show)

I must say, I’ve been looking forward to this show. I last saw Thundercat at San Fran in 2016, and it was a blast. One of the most proficient acts I can think of, and with a generous dash of humour.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the venue. A quick search on the Googles told me that Odlins Plaza is on the Wellington waterfront, next to the stock exchange. I’ve been to events located there before (like Homegrown and Lux Festival), but I wasn’t aware of an actual venue. Was it in the whare? Or maybe a makeshift gazebo? And if so, how would thing affect acoustics? I made sure to pack my backup camera lens just to ensure that I was adequately prepared for any eventuality.

I arrived to find the snazziest darn temporary venue ever. I’m talking chandeliers and stained glass windows. It was octagonal shaped with a bar, outside eating/drinking areas, and terraced wooden flooring. Flaaaaaash!

Thundercat Wellington

God bless NZ Festival. Typically going out to see a show on a school night means getting home at some ungodly hour and feeling haggard and sleep deprived at work the following day. But these festival shows are well run. No opening act, and the Thundercat trio graced at stage at 8pm, as advertised.

I was disappointed to see that Thundercat (real name Stephen Bruner) wasn’t wearing his trademark Birkenstock sandals and socks, but rather red Chuck Taylors covered in comic book related patches and buttons. He also had Asian themed silk shorts and jacket adorned with embroidered dragons – giving off a Thai kickboxing x Chinese emperor vibe – and rounded off his look with a red LA Dodgers cap atop thin pink dreadlocks.

Thundercat Wellington I think as a general rule, most guitarists own a pedal board the size of approximately three newborn babies, dotted with small boxes that boast dials and flashing lights that sometimes enhance their overall tone, but are more likely there for show. Bass players tend to cope with less – usually two fewer strings and smaller pedal boards – although they compensate by having heavier amps and speakers. Thundercat didn’t even have a pedal board. He just had two effects pedals and a setlist sat upon a music stand at waist height. That said, he managed to pull off some of the most unearthly tones you’ll ever hear come from a bass guitar – six string or otherwise.

Bruner was joined by Dennis Hamm on keys and Justin Brown on drums. And although Bruner is the star attraction – known as the mad bassist who has played a part with acts like Suicidal Tendencies, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, even our own Kimbra – his band members demonstrated a heroic effort by not only keeping up, but matching him.

Thundercat Wellington

Together the trio treated us to roughly an hour of fantastic music. It bordered on free jazz, but surely music this complex has to be rehearsed? Busy, cosmic tunes, almost like a continuous evolving solo with the barest of structure.

Bruner has such a great low-key vibe. He’s not one to take himself too seriously, and laughed a lot at his own expense. There were a few moments that he hinted at losing his cool over technical moments like an monitor mix and a cable crapping out, but they were few and fleeting. He laughed at how nerdy he was, trying to drum up conversation about comic books, video games and twitter.

Thundercat WellingtonThere’s no denying that Thundercat has mad talent. He plays bass guitar like few I’ve ever seen. You wouldn’t even believe that it is a bass if you didn’t know. It certainly doesn’t sound like one. He sings his smooth falsetto verses into the mic before stepping back to launch into extended interludes, his fingers racing atop the fretboard like wired up arachnids.

The highlight for me was watching Justin Brown play. Earlier today I was thinking about great drummers I’ve seen play live. You have your solid rockers from bands like Foo Fighters, Chili Peppers, Shihad. There’s the prog/math guys and general prodigies from bands like Russian Circles, Karnivool, Biffy Clyro, Gary Clark Jr and Incubus. And then you have your freaks, the guys who play for genre-bending technical bands like Mars Volta and Tool. After consideration, I still think that Brown rates among the best I’ve seen. Better yet, I had the pleasure of crouching about a metre away from him to see his playing up close for an hour.

All up it was a great gig. How often do you get the chance to see such amazingly proficient musicians in such an intimate setting? I was impressed by the new venue and had a great time, still getting home for bed at a reasonable hour. What more could you want?

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Thundercat is playing another sold out show at Odlins Plaza for NZ Festival on Friday 2nd March, before heading to Auckland for Auckland City Limits festival on Saturday 3rd.

Words and photos by Joseph James

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