Live Review – Thundercat at San Fran, Wellington

Thundercat San Fran Wellington


w/ Orchestra of Spheres and Thanks

San Francisco Bathhouse, Wellington

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Thundercat is the stage name of virtuoso Stephen Bruner, most famously known for his work playing bass with acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Suicidal Tendancies and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. None of these are acts that I listen to often, including Bruner’s own music,  but I knew that it would be foolish to miss this show. Why? Because Thundercat has a reputation for being insanely good at playing the bass guitar, and with that much talent, the show promised to be good regardless of what he played.

Thundercat songs are smooth, soulful R&B styled tunes sung in falsetto. Bruner played his six string bass like a guitar, eliciting mellow tones that juxtaposed beautifully against his high singing voice. Jazzy, bluesy, and eccentric all in one, the vibrant fusion songs pulsated and writhed as the three musos onstage played off each other. They would coast along nicely, before breaking loose into chaotic tangents and solos that showcased the talents of the trio playing.

Thundercat San Fran Wellington, Ben Stewart Photography (2)

Image: Ben Stewart Photography

Bruner was at home on stage. He wore an unassuming black tshirt and pants, with a red five panel hat showing a Japanese flag on his head, and white Birkenstock sandals and long grey socks on his feet. He would approach the mic for banter, pause, and just giggle to himself before gaining composure to say something. He discussed the merits of drinking water, having recently sworn off alcohol. He also dedicated a song to Peter Jackson, commenting on the Lord of The Rings installations he had seen at Wellington Airport. “What would you do if you actually saw an eagle that big?” he asked, before giggling and answering himself: “Die. Just die”.

He would hunch his shoulders forward and grimace with his eyes closed as he played. Hands like thick legged spiders scurried up and down his fretboard with finesse, churning out the groovy dancing melodies. He usually either bobbed up and down on the spot, or did a stationary strut, like a cocky rooster nodding it’s neck back and forward.

Thundercat San Fran Wellington, Ben Stewart Photography (1)

Image: Ben Stewart Photography

Like Mitch Mitchell (of Jimi Hendrix fame), drummer Justin Brown not only held his own, but sometimes overshadowed his frontman. Having two snare drums allowed him to play both open handed and cross handed with ease, not that having just the one snare would have slowed him down at all. He coloured the sound with lightning quick fills and busy ghost notes, tirelessly playing with unmatchable energy and talent. The one slip-up I noticed was met with applause, as he lost grip of his drumstick and dropped it, only to pick up a spare and continue without missing a beat. As a drummer myself, I rate Brown as one of the most impressive drummers I’ve seen live, on par with The Mars Volta’s Thomas Pridgen.

Dennis Hamm rounded out the sound on the keys, giving more treble to a mix dominated by low-end. His spacey effects added to the swirly cosmic sound. The three were clearly well rehearsed, but you could tell that they had flexibility in their playing, because now and again Brown or Hamm would play something that sent Bruner into small fits of laughter over how monstrously talented they were.

Thundercat San Fran Wellington, Ben Stewart Photography (3)

Image: Ben Stewart Photography


I attended the sold-out show expecting to be impressed by some slick playing. Well, I got that in spades. Awe-inspiring, mind-blowing – choose a hyperbole and it probably applies. I expected to see a world class musician show me his skills. Not only did I get that, but he had a world class drummer and keyboard player to match.

Joseph James


Thanks to Ben Stewart Photography for supplying the photos. Go ahead and like his Facebook  page to see more.

The above video was uploaded by In The Nick Of The Rhyme, another new Wellington  based music site. As you can see, Thundercat kept punters happy by playing some Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus material.

Live Review: Ash Grunwald at Meow, Wellington


Ash Grunwald

Meow, Wellington

Saturday 28 December 2015

Blues rocker Ash Grunwald started the night off with a trifecta of songs about surfing. All three were ridiculously funny, especially “Dolphin Song” – based on a true story of a pod of dolphins rescuing him from a shark. The song ended with Grunwald making absurd squeaky dolphin noises into the microphone over the top of his guitar solo which lightened up the mood of the venue.

The first song had been relatively calm, reflecting the dinner table environment that Meow had put on. But a few songs in Grunwald couldn’t help but let loose with some roaring blues numbers. Out came the resonator guitar and the slide, and there was little holding back from then on.

Ash Grunwald Meow

It was a joy to watch him wailing and stomping and letting rip on the guitar. The tunes were infectious and before long most of the people in the bar were on their feet and moving. Grunwald’s didn’t take himself too seriously, cracking jokes and making silly impersonations in the middle of songs. He was clearly having fun on stage, and projected his humour onto his audience.

I expected a small setup from a man playing a solo show, but in reality it looked like he was piloting the Starship Enterprise. Grunwald was perched atop a red stool, with an impressively large array of effects pedal to his left, two microphones in front of him, and something called a foot drum at his feet. This foot drum was ingenious. It somehow housed cymbals, a snare, egg shakers, a tambourine and a bass drum – all playable through the use of pedals. It offered more dynamics than a standard stompbox and really enhanced the overall sound. The two different microphones also helped to mix up the sound, with one having plenty of reverb and effects going through it.

Grunwald played a range of songs from his repertoire, old and new. There was no prepared setlist, he just picked songs which suited the mood. He took requests from the audience, and also played a variety of covers drawing from blues legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Son House and Howling Wolf, as well as Van Morrison and Gnarls Barkley.

Two highlights included acapella covers of “Grinnin In Your Face” and “John the Revelator”. Grunwald ditched his guitar and bellowed the songs with his powerful voice, clapping to keep the beat. For the latter song he ventured into the audience and encouraged everyone to clap and wail along.

It was a fun time. Grunwald was at home on the stage, fueled by espresso martinis and improvising as he went.  He announced his last song after having played for an hour and a half, only to have to extend his set at the request of his audience – not that he seemed to mind. Some audience members thought highly enough to each tip him $20 for his performance, despite his protests that they should at least take a CD in exchange for their money. And is there a better indicator of great show than people insistent on paying more than the price of admission to attend?

Joseph James

You can also read my interview with Ash Grunwald from a few weeks ago here.


Album Review: Gary Clark Jr – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

Gary Clark Jr The Story of Sonny Boy Slim cover art

I’ve seen Clark play on both his visits to NZ. The first time he opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Vector Arena in 2013. It was only a four-song set, but it was enough to blow me away. When he came back to our shores earlier this year he proved once again that he is a musical force to be reckoned with.

There was never a question of whether The Story of Sonny Boy Slim was going to be good. Gary Clark Jr has the midas touch of the guitaring world. The question was whether he would be able to capture his sensational live energy on his sophomore studio full-length.

The problem was that his Black and Blu album wasn’t comparable to his stage sound. The dirty rawness got lost in the production. The songs were good, but didn’t allow the true brilliance to shine through.

Before I discuss the music, I must note that this album is visually stunning. I bought the 2LP gatefold vinyl and the art is great, with a contrasting colour scheme of red, yellow and black. The best aspect is side D, which features the scene from inside the gatefold laser-etched onto the disc.

Side D, with laser etchings of the picture from inside the gatefold

Side D, with laser etchings of the picture from inside the gatefold

Clark has taken more control over this second album. No co-writers are credited this time round. He also dominates with the instrumentation, playing bass, keyboards and drums as well as the expected vocals and guitar. This would suggest that the record could sound more clinical, having been recorded in so many separate takes. But it doesn’t. And kudos to Clark for having the ability to pull off the work that usually requires a full band. He roped in some mates to help out at times, including saxophone, horns, organ, piano, and flute to flesh out the sound.

The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is also a bit of a family affair. Clark’s fiance Nicole Trunfio and son Zion feature in the intro of ‘Hold On’, and his sisters Shawn and Savannah provide backing vocals on a three tracks.

Speaking of intros, the start of first track ‘The Healing’ has an odd little pre-amble that sounds like something Son House would sing. It’s not a strong introduction to the album, but it does foreshadow that this album is more of a nod to older styled blues.

‘Grinder’ is the designated crowd pleaser – the rock number with the obligatory guitar solos the whole way through. But The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is not an rock record (surprising, considering that the release date coincides with the commencement of a tour supporting rock titans Foo Fighters). Instead most of the songs sit back in the groove. This is the album that requires being in the moment. There’s no hurry. There doesn’t need to be.

Take, for example, ‘Star’. It has skanking guitar and falsetto singing riding upon a delicious bassline. It stays strong and steady the whole way through.

Some of the stand out tracks include ‘Hold On’ – a more ballsy song that features a horn mantra and squealing guitars; ‘Wings’ -which showcases Tameca Jones as the amazing guest vocalist who sings above the infectious syncopated snare patterns; and ‘Can’t Sleep’ – with more squealing guitars and a bouncing beat.

We hear nod’s to the inspirations from the past in the Motown-sounding ‘BYOB’, and the ho-down that is ‘Shake’ goes full-vintage with prominent slide guitar. Harmonica and organs and brass instruments all feature heavily throughout the album, too, giving a New Orleans flavour.

Final track ‘Down to Ride’ is like ‘You Saved Me’ version 2: the longer hazy extended jam. It takes me back to when I saw Clark play last, drinking in the soulful tunes in a hazy, dimly lit venue.

Clark is no longer the promising young guitarist from Austin who needs to impress and make a name for himself. He has proven himself already, so now he can sit back and play music for his own satisfaction. And taking a more personal approach may have reduced the sell-ability of the album, but it also lifted the overall quality and cohesiveness. He doesn’t need the co-writers, the producers or show-off songs. His songwriting is strong enough that he can let the music sell itself. This is an album designed as a whole, rather than a collection of singles.

Listen to ‘Church’ (featured above), a track that Clark previewed at his Wellington show earlier in the year. It’s nothing flashy. Hell, it’s straight up basic. But there’s something that I can’t quite pick that makes it utterly electrifying.

If you’re after the next Hendrix, then this album will disappoint. But if you are happy to settle for some stunning blues, saturated in a relaxed vibe and some thrilling instrumentation, then this will suffice. And of course the guitar playing is still brilliant.

Clark is Sonny Boy Slim. This is his autobiography. And it’s well worth a listen.

Joseph James

Live Review: Gary Clark Jr. at Shed 6, Wellington

Gary Clark Jr NZ poster

Gary Clark Jr.

w/ Aaron Tokona
Shed 6, Wellington
Sunday 29 March 2015

A few years ago my friend Sam and I flew up to Auckland for a few concerts at Vector Arena. The first show was Weezer playing their first album (known as the “Blue Album”) in its entirety. A few nights later Red Hot Chili Peppers played at the same venue . It was a great trip and both shows were awesome. The standout band though, was Gary Clark Jr, one of the acts who opened for the Chilis.

I’d never listened to him beforehand, but Clark and his band caught my attention straight away. He was something else. So smooth. So slick. He had a swagger about him that just reeked of cool. They only played four songs, but that was more than enough to make a lasting impression.

When I got home I immediately looked him up and started accumulating his music. My girlfriend bought the Black and Blu LP for me. I ordered a Gary Clark Jr/ Son House split from Daytrotter. There was a mixtape hosted at datpiff that featured a more hip-hop flavour. He also featured on a catchy little Cody ChesnuTT b-side.

[ChesnuTT was my other musical discovery that year. I saw him play in Wellington on his birthday and he was outstanding.]

Since then I’ve noticed Clark pop up here and there, slowly gaining popularity. There was a cameo on the film Chef, and a Foo Fighters collaboration on the album/television series Sonic Highways.

And now finally he has returned to New Zealand to headline his own shows, as an extension of the Byron Bay Bluesfest.

This was my first time in Shed 6 since it has been refurbished as an alternative to the Wellington Town Hall. It was a similar size to Town Hall, and didn’t seem to suffer from the terrible acoustics that neighbouring venue TSB Arena is so notorious for.

No support act had been announced, so I was pleased to recognise Aaron Tokona (Cairo Knife Fight, Ahoribuzz) when he graced the stage. He opened his set with “Calling On”, the biggest single from his 90’s rock band Weta. For the ensuing half an hour, Tokona noodled around on his guitar and messed with his effect pedals, displaying his mastery over his instrument. It’s hard to say who enjoyed the set more out of Tokona and the audience, because he was clearly having a ball onstage. He strummed and plucked and tapped as he gyrated around.  He even sheepishly took a selfie in front of the crowd. “I’ve never done this before” he confessed, “but all my mates do it.”

Aaron's selfie, taken from his Facebook page

Aaron’s selfie, taken from his Facebook page

“Now I can show my 13-year-old daughter that I’m cool!” he grinned after taking the snap.There was no telling how much of his set was rehearsed or spontaneous, but Tokona managed to impress and entertain us with his abilities.

[Keith Stanfield from Moors is one of the actors in this clip. He also features in the latest Run The Jewels video. Keep an eye on him, because I’m picking Stanfield to become the next big thing.]

Gary Clark Jr and his band were sublime. The highlight of the set for me was “When My Train Pulls In”. I got so excited from the first note. There was a familiar light strum to check the tuning, and he started building feedback and the drummer washed up his cymbals, before a pause, and then that riff. That riff that is so laid back, so groovy. It sounded so effortless. It was nirvana. It was only about four songs into the set, but after that song I could have happily left satisfied.

Not that I needed to leave. The following song, “Don’t Owe You A Thing”, really bumped the energy up, before Clark lowered the mood with “Please Come Home”. And both songs were great. Every song was great, truth be told. Ballad or anthem, cover or original, the musicians on stage all played exceptionally well and left the audience awestruck.

There was a sound that permeated the set – a dirty, raw blues vibe. Although it’s a great record, Black and Blu sounded overly polished. It was too sedate and clean to capture the true essence of the songs. But in a live setting the songs come to life. Most songs were long and drawn out with endless solos.

Clark opened the set with a slide on his finger, and finished with devastating solo and feedback. And in every song between he proved why he has a guitar legend status. It’s not hard to see why all the Hendrix comparisons get made. Clark even covered a Hendrix song, “Third Stone From The Sun”. He scratched up and down the string, making DJ noises, and messed with the tempo by having the band gradually speed up before reverting back to the original speed.

The encore was an unreleased love song (from the forthcoming album) that Clark played solo. It seemed basic compared to many of the other songs, but it seemed to cast a spell over the crowd. He followed with “Black and Blu”, before his band mates joined him for a stunning rendition of the closing song “Bright Lights”

This was the gig that I had most been looking forward to all year. And it more than surpassed my expectations. Not only was the opening act Aaron Tokona thoroughly entertaining, but Clark and his band put on a such a stellar two-hour set of soulful bluesy rock that I can’t help but rave about how good it was. It was slick, yet laid back. Impressive, but seemingly effortless. Clark and his boys have the skills to wow. If you get the chance to see them play, do. They won’t disappoint.

Joseph James

Live Review: Shaun Kirk at Bodega, Wellington

Shaun Kirk
w/ Paint The Sand
Bodega, Wellington
Thursday 11 September 2014

Bodega was set up differently last night. There were couches and seats in front of the stage where everyone would usually stand.

This suited perfectly for local opening act Ben Maurice, under the guise of Paint the Sand. His music is designed for chilling back to, comprising of surf-inspired originals and laid-back pop cover medleys. Switching from acoustic to electric guitar in the past year has worked for him, making his set more varied and dynamic. He has added some nice brooding interludes to his set with the use of some distortion and a touch of reverb. He kept the crowd entertained between songs with his self-deprecating humour, checking to see if we were still awake.

It was clear that Shaun Kirk had chops from the opening notes. The sound was so crisp, and Kirk commanded full control over his guitar.

And it wasn’t just his guitar, either. He really was a one-man band, playing guitar, singing, blowing into his harp and playing drums though the use of pedals at his feet. It was a funny sight at times. Kirk perched on his stool strumming the gat and singing whilst lightly stomping on his many pedals. It looked like a leprechaun dancing a jig, hopping from foot to foot. I’m still not sure how he managed to keep balance atop his stool.

Highlight of the night was the song “Chicken and Corn”. Kirk introduced the song with a story about his past. When he decided to become a full-time musician he’d bought himself a Kombi. He’d named it Tracy and painted it orange. He would drive from town to town playing shows to earn money to pay for petrol so he could drive to the next show. To sustain his meager existence he’d sleep in the back of the Kombi and  live off a diet of only peanut butter, bread and tinned chicken and corn. It was tough at the time, but he laughs when he looks back at those times now.

Kirk was a wonder to watch. We were sat down on the floor in front of him, entranced with his innate guitar playing ability and raspy falsetto voice. He channeled the spirit of the greats, like his idol, Tony Joe White, and brought some authentic Blues to lil’ ol’ Wellington.

If anyone in the South Island is reading this, I highly recommend going along to the last few shows of the tour. And while you’re at it, take some cans of chicken and corn to donate to a poor blues guitarist.

Joseph James

Shaun Kirk's pedals. Note the five pedals for drums, as well as a stomp box

Shaun Kirk’s pedals. Note the five pedals for drums, as well as a stomp box.