It’s been well over a year since the last live performance at the Hollywood Bowl. The pandemic that shuttered literally almost the entire world forced the Bowl to cancel its season and for the first time in 98 years, went more than two weeks without a performance. With the tide finally starting to turn and more and more Southern Californians getting vaccinated, the venue announced a new season for 2021 and who better to kick things off than Thundercat and Flying Lotus? We’ve already seen the two Los Angeles-based artists play the Bowl a few years ago for the Brainfeeder Live show, and they’re an intrinsic part of the local scene.
This first show had a special twist to it: the concert was free and reserved for frontline workers, part of a mini-series of shows for the people that through their jobs got us through this historic pandemic. California is still a few days away from the big day of June 15 when the state “opens up,” so there was still mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements during the show. Attendees, were seated in groups of four with ample space between each group. This made for a bit of a surreal experience for the audience but especially the performers, who all remarked upon how strange it was perform at the massive venue to such a sparse audience. This weirdness had no effect on the performances, as Flying Lotus and Thundercat performed tight, upbeat sets. The venue is still taking baby-steps back to a return to normal, so the sets were shorter than usual for the Bowl and didn’t have an intermission.
The night got started with a moving video from Los Angeles Philharmonic musical director Gustavo Dudamel, thanking the first responders in attendence. After the video, Flying Lotus casually took the stage, greeting the audience with “well, this is nice and weird.”
While Flying Lotus is known for a live set that can be dark, dissonant and even abrasive, last night’s show reflected the mood of the audience and world at-large. Instead of dark, moody lighting and flashing strobes, the hues within the band shell were vibrant and colorful. FlyLo’s face (most of the time sporting a huge smile) was visible for the full performance, which skewed more towards a DJ set than a true set of Flying Lotus tracks. Included in his mix was a tribute to the late MF Doom (“Lunch Break”), an interpolation of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly standout “King Kunta.” Of course, no post-COVID (knock on wood) concert could be complete without a coordinated group shoutalong of “Fuck COVID!” which was led by Flying Lotus. Instead of the usual intermission between performers, at the end of his set Flying Lotus invited Thundercat on stage for a collaborative song, the perfect bridge between the two sets. After the song, Thundercat and his small band finished out the night with a 45 minute set.
Thundercat was joined by keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer Justin Brown for a set that touched on all of the hits from his critically-acclaimed albums Drunk and It Is What It Is. However, it wasn’t by any means a straight by-the-numbers run through of Thundercat’s most-beloved songs. Bouyed by Brown’s proficient, swirling drum beats, Hamm and Thundercat took turns diving deep into the songs, extending every song’s length by a few minutes by seemingly improvising throughout the set. He hilariously performed “I Love Louis Cole,” a song about a wild night with his buddy and fellow musician Louis Cole, taking the time within the verses to explain the context of the lyrics, all the while his fingers flying around the fretboard. There was also a tribute to Chick Correa, who died earlier this year from a rare form of cancer. Even seemingly straightforward songs like “Dragonball Durag” received moments of extended jamming. The high point of the set came during the performance of “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” an emotional piece of music that mixes straightforward progressive R&B with more avant garde jazz sections, plus lyrical content that while not specifically about the kind of collective trauma we experienced in 2020, certainly resonates with the kind of year we experienced in 2020. The set concluded with two more of Thundercat’s most beloved songs, “Friend Zone” and “Funny Thing,” putting a stamp on what was a triumphant, if a bit bizarre, return to live music for the Hollywood Bowl and Los Angeles.
Photo Credit: Owen Ela