In the original cartoon, ThunderCats were armed with swords, mind power and martial arts skills. Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner packs a six-string Ibanez bass, and don’t underestimate its power.
At Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom on Friday night, Bruner dazzled the audience with the kind of instrumental virtuosity that echoed giants of the electric bass like Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. But unlike those pioneers, Bruner’s live shows feature him singing and playing lead instrument on all of his compositions, lending a bit of a rock star status to the growing Thundercat mystique.
Accompanied by power players Dennis Hamm on keyboards and former Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen, Bruner colored from the palate of ‘70s astral jazz fusion, adding funk and electronic touches that never weighed down the gossamer texture of the music. “Daylight,” from 2011’s “The Golden Age of Apocalypse,” sounded as bright and pulsing as its title, recalling a bit of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” in its melody. Wearing a red-and-white high school letter jacket, Bruner patted himself on the shoulder in the middle of the song before downshifting the tempo and steering the song into a more abstract direction.
Bruner plays the bass with all of his fingers, almost in the style of a classical or Spanish flamenco guitarist. “Tron Song” from “Apocalypse,” the album released last month, recalled classical phrases in its opening moments. It’s a song about Bruner’s cat, and with lines like “Don’t you ever leave me, turbo Tron,” this is not exactly what you would call chin-rubbing erudition. But that’s not to say the music can’t also sound almost transcendent at times. While Bruner’s writing and falsetto voice are still evolving, they serve the ethereal, sometimes psychedelic nature of songs played at a high level of musicianship. In “Is It Love?” the trio’s chordal shift halfway through removed you from the song’s smooth and easy mood and challenged you to re-listen to it with a different ear.
Like most of the tracks on the latest album, “Heartbreaks + Setbacks” paid approximate tribute to pianist Austin Peralta, Bruner’s close friend and Brainfeeder labelmate who died of pneumonia last November at only 22. Tackling the challenges of love’s ups and downs, the song had a rougher, almost R&B edge. The buoyant quality of almost all of Thundercat’s music still managed to surface by song’s end.
This was the kind of show where fans and other musicians in the audience neared the stage for eyefuls of Bruner’s technique and then met back by the bar and sound booth area to confirm with each other what they had just witnessed. The playing was that impressive. But technique and virtuosity don’t always translate into good music. Thundercat’s prowess sounded soulful, not self indulgent.
On several occasions during the night, Hamms looked over at Bruner from his seat at the keyboards, watching and smiling, wondering where his bandmate’s next improvisation was going to lead. You could extend that same anticipation to Thundercat’s career in general. He’s no cartoon hero, but there aren’t many limits on what he can do.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and recently completed his novel, “As We Used to Sing.” His selected work can be read at samdeleo.com.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s indie and bluegrass blogger. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.