OAKLAND — Stephen Lee Bruner is a man who can really play the hell out of the bass guitar. He proved it again on Friday night, guiding his jazz trio through multiple structural breakdowns and outlandish leads. In a set that leaned into his sharp-eyed soft-funk ouevre, Bruner, better known as Thundercat, rocked the Fox Theater with rare assuredness.
Moving all over the frets of a giant pink electric bass, Thundercat threw heft right and left like an old “Batman” episode. Two massive free-jazz sessions mid-set substantiated Thundercat’s low-end learnings. He schooled his bandmates with polyrhythms, call-and-response and hard attack. The songs rippled along at a cerebral pace under his crooning lilt.
“I wish I had nine lives…” he caterwauled on “Tron Song,” a minor hit from his 2017 album, Drunk. “Everybody wants to be a cat.”
Exercising his status as a funk master, Thundercat ripped the life out of the strings of his instrument while sustaining weird lyrics. He honored the freaked-out, off-the-cuff and unconventional with “Captain Stupido,” a song about falling asleep.
In addition to his astute musicianship, Bruner referenced music lore. He dedicated the second song to the recently passed McCoy Tyner, a jazz pianist renowned for his work with John Coltrane. One song later, he called on the audience to honor Louis Cole, another contemporary inspiration, whom Thundercat referred to as “actually a genius.”
Keyboardist Dennis Hamm did a fantastic job matching Thundercat’s active approach to the strings. Hamm filled the treble range, with help from the frontman’s high-fretting nimbleness. He adapted to the abrupt cuts and funky interims of the erratic bass, counteracting it with a monk-like, studious urbanity. Abandon and focus melded in one strong display. Justin Brown rippled under the surface with smooth rolls and a supple wrist. The wizardry onstage transcended the room, distilling a vital moment in live ensemble musicianship.
Having conveniently named himself after a motorcycle, a snowmobile and a squadron of cartoon superheroes, Thundercat relished his role. The self-professed gamer wore oversized George-Clinton-esque sunglasses through the set and betrayed no hint of nerves beneath his calm demeanor. Crowd-pleaser “Dragonball Durag” saw opener Guapdad 4000 return to the stage, giving a demonstration in doo-rag tying. “Friend Zone” gave Thundercat a chance to get his lyrical priorities right.
“This is another song about my cat,” he said before dropping the outer-space party oddity “Walkin.'”
The band locked in admirably, with a highly focused jam method. Behind them, 48 red jaguar icons glared. The majority of the songs were short and meticulously crafted. Stylistically, the trio remained in a strong root of dripping, drizzling jazz. Thundercat’s falsetto vocals and laid-back patterns created a veneer of mellow over the performers’ kinetic creative energies.
Opener Guapdad 4000 brought a high energy hip-hop set to the Fox stage.
“Don’t catch me on a bad day and expect me to be that nice,” the artist requested during an impressive staccato speed run.
Relying heavily on anecdotes highlighting his West Oakland origins, Guapdad4000 delivered verbal precision with minimal lag through a series of short songs. His DJ, Mr. Dimension, added tangible energy to the stage arrangement. Mr. Dimension assisted on vocals and overwhelmed listeners with gratuitous use of a gunshot sound effect.