Live: Thundercat @ Meltdown Festival, Southbank, London
Thundercat raises the roof at the Royal Festival Hall for day two of Nile Rodgers Meltdown, in a performance that is not for the faint-hearted.
The excitement and anticipation for Thundercat was nothing short of palpable as we took our seats at the iconic Royal Festival Hall, perhaps some if not all of us wondering exactly how a seated Thundercat gig would play out given the funky overtones of his 2017 release, Drunk. It is hard to classify his sound because as with many great artists it has evolved over the years, but broadly speaking it ranges from soulful low tempo funk ballads to crossover Thrash, and everything in between with a solid nod to “Jazz” and an air of experimentation. What is not debatable is that Thundercat is a phenomenal musician with a unique sound that is deserving of a headliner spot at any festival including one curated by a legend such as Nile Rodgers, a man that needs little introduction.
The tone was set early on by the support act, a five-piece (on this occasion) Jazz ensemble called the Onyx Collective that has been making a name for themselves on the New York Jazz scene for a few years now. They performed much of the set in a shallow pentagon formation with the vocalist to the left of the, a visual representation of their truly collective vibe of this group. The sound was cerebral but with a bouncy edge, often with the vocalist using his voice as an instrument and helping to push the sound deeper rather into a jazz frenzy than cutting across the other instruments.
At the end of their set the man himself, Nile Rodgers, appeared on stage to thank the collective for their efforts, in fact, he was so blown away by them he congratulated a few of them more than once in genuine and sincere exchange that lasted minutes. He went on to communicate to us that the collective was a representative of the east coast Jazz scene whilst Thundercat hails from the West, perhaps as a brief explanation of his curation for that night. It certainly felt like Nile was very proud of both and quite keen to show their talents off to the UK.
Shortly after, Thundercat took the stage in his customary funky silk shorts flagged by the other two members of his band, Justin Brown on Drums and Dennis Hamm on Keys, both of which were elevated on podiums whilst the man himself stood tall with bass in hand Centre stage. Then it began; an onslaught of energy and pure musicianship, which quite frankly startled the crowd whilst subtly raising the already quite elevated roof of the Royal Festival Hall to a place in the sky.
It is normally the case in Jazz related performances that songs will be interspersed with improvised jam featuring solos however Thundercat spun this on its head with the recorded material (often only a few minutes long) being secondary to the improvisations that lasted minutes upon minutes and ranged from the ethereal on tracks such as “Uh Uh” to hardcore thrash on tracks such as “A Fan’s mail.” The set drew roughly fifty per cent from his latest release and fifty per cent from earlier materials including three songs from the 2015 EP, The Beyond/ Where the Giants Roam. At all stages of the performance and at all times it was clear Thundercat was having fun, clear from his beaming smile and energy. Eventually, one brave concert-goer broke the stalemate by standing up to dance, much to the joy of the band and from there crowd loosened up and the dancing in seats began. This was to be repeated toward the end of the gig when finally he played “Them Changes’, the track which gained his mainstream success in 2017. When the recorded material was played it was studio quality except perhaps on one track where he openly forgot the lyrics. It must be noted this was a collective effort and it would be hard for the levels that reached to be achieved without the efforts of all three musicians. In particular Justin Brown blessed us with the most delicate drum playing by just touching the edge of the symbols as percussion that was spine-tingling and Dennis Hamm used a violin setting on the Keys to blow the roof off on more than one occasion.
This was a performance from the heart, with Thundercat discussing topics onstage including losing loved ones and past drug-use. The whole concert felt very real and organic but perhaps would have been a challenge for those who have only listened to his more recent work. Thundercat is a real (Jazz) musician who will play how he feels in an effort to take you on a musical and perhaps cosmic journey, and it will be interesting to see how far he goes on his journey in the years to come.
Photo credit: Victor Frankowski & Pete Woodhead - courtesy of the organisers