Tuesday night, Flying Lotus’ tour with protege Thundercat arrived at the Tower, where West Philadelphia bleeds over into suburban Upper Darby. His album You’re Dead!, a meditation on mortality provoked by the drug-related death of collaborator Austin Peralta and a similar near-death experience of his own, dropped a week prior on British electronic label Warp Records. As recorded, it sounds more like a jazz suite than the latest album to come from LA’s Low End Theory beat scene, usually more focused on hip-hop and post-dubstep sounds. FlyLo, however, whose government name is Steven Ellison, is the great nephew of jazz great Alice Coltrane, an influence that has been increasingly apparent on each successive release. His journey in that direction parallels that of Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, whose virtuosic bass playing is evident all over You’re Dead!, along with collaborations with jazz legend Herbie Hancock. To be fair, there are also guest verses from Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, as well as Ellison’s alter ego Captain Murphy, but these fit more in the lineage of Guru’s Jazzmatazz than those artists’ more mainstream work.
On arrival at the venue, I was immediately struck by the diversity of the crowd. About half of them looked as if they were attending a Phish concert, with tie-dye and other hippie signifiers much in evidence. A significant group seemed to think this would be a rave, complete with glowsticks, while the remainder reminded me of crowds at conscious hip-hop shows. There was a DJ on stage pumping out fairly straightforward EDM trap music, though eventually he dropped a track by Shabazz Palaces, an act I think would fit perfectly on a bill with FlyLo. There was an enormous structure filling the center of the stage. I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but I’d heard the visuals for this tour were not to be missed. Deciding where to sit or stand proved complicated, as this was a general admission show at what for the most part a seated venue. For Thundercat‘s set, I decided to stand at the back of the pit, where the sloped floor allowed me to peer over the heads of the crowd between there and the stage.
His entrance was unmistakable. An imposing figure with an enormous six-string bass wearing a fur headdress that included the animal’s whole head and a tail hanging by each ear, Thundercat would stand out in any company. If not for his distinctive appearance and the intense light show, he, his keyboardist, and drummer would look like a fairly typical jazz trio. As he stepped to the microphone, however, he went further into his own territory. Bruner’s lyrics mostly focus on universal themes of love, fairly typical pop fare that belies the complicated rhythmic structures and intricate basslines contorting beneath his cooing falsetto. I would love to see him play in a jazz club where his soloing, and that of tremendously talented trio, could be properly appreciated. As it was, he and I both got the impression that this night was headed in a different direction. When he teased the opening line of breakout hit “Oh Sheit It’s X” and got little to no crowd response, he decided to introduce the band, hype up the crowd for FlyLo, and call it a night. The seemingly abbreviated set made me disappointed I’d missed his last trip to Philly, a headlining tour that stopped at Boot & Saddle.
Flying Lotus would soon make me forget that disappointment, however. Overcoming a few brief technical difficulties, including a sub he blew within the first minute, he launched into an exploration of virtually all the nooks and crannies his music has touched upon over the course of 5 albums. The structure at center stage turned out to be an enormous scrim, flanked by two strobing towers, the combination of which made his perch on a platform behind the scrim only sporadically visible and more impressionistic than detailed. It was clear he was DJing and producing with an Ableton setup, a laptop and controller placed on a stand, behind which he danced, flailed, and occasionally interjected with a microphone, although he spent the majority of the set hunched over the equipment tweaking parameters and effects, remixing his own material live. Meanwhile, the video projections on the scrim fluctuated wildly, from cartoon clips and full-motion videos to the sort of abstract visualizations one would see as a desktop screensaver. The total visual presentation was mesmerizing, with the crowd staring through the screen hoping to catch a glimpse of the artist behind it being drawn into an increasingly psychedelic experience by its contents.
Especially in the early portion of the show, the music was far more beat-oriented than I expected on this particular tour, with the jazz influences evident around the fringes rather than at the center. Ellison even came out from behind the screen for a brief set of songs as rapper Captain Murphy, a move that kept things visually interesting for those who hadn’t managed to smuggle anything illegal past security. He knows when to give the people what they want, and used the goodwill he earned in so doing to move in a jazzier direction once he returned to his post. This is Jazzmatazz for the EDM generation: intricate jazz-based instrumental hip-hop presented with an elaborate light show in a non-stop DJ set. Imagine Madlib or J Dilla playing the main stage at Electric Daisy Carnival and you get the idea. In a touching moment, he even moved from one of his own footwork-influenced productions into one by recently deceased footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, complete with rest in peace shoutout on the microphone. It was a fantastic show, managing to make the musings of the electronic avant-garde palatable to a mass audience, one that will undoubtedly continue to grow as both artists improve and expand their sound(s). I would hope for the next tour that both Thundercat and Flying Lotus can move from the liner notes of each other’s albums into on-stage collaboration, a development that seems only natural with the increasing role they’ve each been playing in the other’s music.
By Dave Fox | Philadelphia Ambassador | @philosofoxthedj | Beat-Play and Music Without Labels, LLC