(Photo Credit: Richard Saethang)
The Hollywood Bowl has offered plenty of highlights over the course of the summer season, but few can boast the full-on sensory overload that was Brainfeeder at the Hollywood Bowl. Running nearly four hours into a wonderfully temperate and clear Southern California evening, the event felt more like a miniature festival than a traditional concert experience. Each of the five participating artists or groups performed relatively truncated sets that were as short as half an hour and topped out with headliner Flying Lotus’s criminally-brief hour-long set. Despite the short amount of time the acts were allocated, each made the most of every moment, giving attendees and experience that was equal parts challenging and rewarding.
By focusing on releasing music by some of the most forward-thinking artists in the realm of instrumental hip-hop and electronic music, Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label has earned its reputation as a leader in avant-garde and experimental music. Late last month, George Clinton announced he would release an album in 2017 on the label. It is a match made in heaven and a total no-brainer (pun intended) for all parties involved. He joins one of the most impressive rosters of any underground record label – Brainfeeder boasts names like Daedalus, Tokimonsta, Kamasi Washington – and of course, the three additional performers rounding out the Brainfeeder at Hollywood Bowl lineup: Thundercat, Shabazz Palaces and The Gaslamp Killer.
The night started out by an enthusiastic DJ set by The Gaslamp Killer, also known as William Bensussen. Over the last decade the hirsute disc jockey has proven to be one of the best and most innovative in Southern California, lending a playful and exciting atmosphere to the Bowl. His retro rock ‘n roll-heavy mix featured everything from doo-wop intertwined with British Invasion guitar riffs to the hard-hitting EDM beat drops that would be expected from a modern DJ. He took the time throughout the night to give the Bowl a sample of his new music, which was more in line with the electronic soundscapes of other artists on the Brainfeeder label. He also offered up a few Middle Eastern-inspired cuts, interrupting the groove to declare his “mother is from Turkey” and his “grandmother is from Syria.” When there was time between sets Bensussen came back out to spin again, and was always a welcome addition to the evening.
As The Gaslamp Killer set up a grinding beat and deftly ducked off stage with no fan-fare, the stage was set for the next act, Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces. Led by Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets fame (then known as Butterfly), the duo was rounded out by multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire. The biggest disappointment was that both members were tethered to their drum machines, congas and samplers, which limited their engagement with the growing crowd. The highly experimental hip-hop group performed tracks from both of their acclaimed LPs, including “Forerunner Foray” from Lese Majesty and Youology from their debut Black Up. The emphasis on the backing tracks and Butler’s rapping being kept fairly low in the mix proved to be a minor disappointment as one of the most striking qualities of Shabazz Palaces is idiosyncratic lyricism. The duo finished up their set with “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum,” one of the best tracks of 2011 and a standout of Black Out.
There is no way to describe the next performer, Thundercat, as anything but a “musician’s musician.” Simply put, at just 31 years of age, he is a transcendent bassist; that much was on full display as the sun descended behind the Hollywood Hills during his 45 minute set. Donning a sweeping cape and a Dodgers cap, he walked on stage with a spectacular dual-neck bass guitar – and yes, he utilized that ten-stringed instrument to its fullest capabilities. He opened with “Hard Times” from his 2015 EP, a song that demonstrates his prowess as an arranger and instrumentalist, but also as a vocalist. Throughout the set his soulful voice gave a touch of humanity to the at-times intimidating jazz deconstruction occurring around (and because of) him. The last two songs of the set offered the biggest surprise of Brainfeeder at Hollywood Bowl. A clearly-enthused Thundercat announced that he would be joined on stage by Michael McDonald, and would only accept the highest levels of audience excitement before moving on. Instead of opting for an obscure cut, McDonald and Thundercat’s band went straight for the jugular, performing The Doobie Brothers’ mega-hit “What a Fool Believes.” McDonald stayed on stage for the final song of the set, “Them Changes.”
Next up was the act that many in the audience specifically came out to see, Funkadelic with George Clinton & Parliament. Between dancers, instrumentalists, singers, emcees and of course, George Clinton, there were at times upwards of a dozen people on the stage. With not a single one of them standing still for more than a moment, it provided a dizzying visual spectacle as the funk conglomeration performed new songs and old hits. It wasn’t quite the nostalgia trip that longtime Clinton fans were hoping for, as the set got off to a start with the newest edition of Funkadelic playing songs off of First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate and a forthcoming album – presumably a different album than the one Clinton will release on Brainfeeder. The new songs were based on a funk template, although it was beefed up to an early Red Hot Chili Peppers or even Fishbone sound with ample amounts of metallic riffs and heavy distortion, and vocally the songs were more fashioned with contemporary hip-hop in mind. After those newer songs, some older members took the stage to perform three classic funk hits: Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove,” Parliament’s “Flashlight” and Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” It should be no shock to learn that from the opening moments of “One Nation…” to the closing seconds of “Atomic Dog,” the entire Bowl was on their feet.
Brainfeeder head honcho Flying Lotus closed out the night. His stage show is well-known for incorporating a stimulating visual presentation which elevates his hypnotic electronic soundscapes to a new plane. He opened with a series of instrumental electronic genre-exercises, starting with a jazzy ten minute opener, moving into a remix of Travis $cott’s “Antidote” followed by a nearly danceable reworking of the Psycho theme, and finishing off with an 8-bit inspired cut that lasted only a minute or two. “Coronus, The Terminator” was the first taste of rapping the audience got from the set, with Flying Lotus proving he is not just a jaw-dropping producer but also a solid emcee.
Acknowledging the bonkers display accompanying his music, he asked the audience about the quality of the visuals, which obviously elicited a strong response. After performing “The Killing Joke” he asked to have the catwalk opened up so he could perform (and check out his those visuals) among the audience members. Announcing he would perform a new song, Flying Lotus asked the audience to imagine themselves sitting shotgun in a car with him on a rainy Los Angeles day, as the sound of a downpour filled the speakers and a car engine blasted on. With that, the musician launched into his new song, a startlingly dark composition that recalls elements of the so-called “witch house” movement of a few years ago. After the new song he talked a bit about making a film and terrifying everyone involved, and his excitement around Brainfeeder’s new film division. In honor of the funk legend that performed less than an hour prior, Flying Lotus gave us some “funky shit” with a song that incorporated “Atomic Dog,” perhaps giving us a taste of what could come when he teams up with Clinton for an album on Brainfeeder.
The most fitting statement of the evening came when the headliner declared towards the end of the night, “the best thing about tonight is connecting all these universes.” A truer statement could not be made considering the players of this bizarre galaxy: underground electronica master The Gaslamp Killer, out-of-this-world rap duo Shabazz Palaces, avant-jazz wunderkind Thundercat, department store Muzak staple Michael McDonald, funk music experimental and commercial trailblazer George Clinton and the ringleader of it all, Flying Lotus.