Brainfeeder Showcase Fuses Enlightened Funk, Innovative Jazz


Flying Lotus, founder of the Brainfeeder label, performs at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Sept. 17.

(Photo: Theo Jemison)

As the summer season drew to a close at the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Philharmonic—which hosts a series of concerts at the venue from July through September—took a big leap toward attracting future subscribers by presenting a night of music affiliated with Brainfeeder, the record label and collective founded and run by jazz-leaning producer, rapper and filmmaker Flying Lotus.

The Sept. 17 label showcase marked a change of pace for the Hollywood Bowl, whose programming typically skews toward Baby Boomer demographics. The decision to present a night of young, genre-blurring performers was a refreshing gamble. Most of the artists were under the age of 35, and likely more accustomed to the small Airliner club in East Los Angeles than to the Bowl’s grand stage.

In only a few short years, L.A.-based Brainfeeder has managed to creatively merge the worlds of electronic dance music and modern jazz. Flying Lotus, born Steven Ellison, is the grandnephew of Alice Coltrane. His label boasts releases from jazz musicians like saxophonist Kamasi Washington and Kneedelus (a fruitful mash-up of the jazz-funk outfit Kneebody and producer Daedelus).

But as they proved over the course of four hours on Sept. 17, Brainfeeder casts a wide net with ample space for goofiness and divine creativity.

The last rays of the sun crossed paths with the full moon as alternative hip-hop DJ The Gaslamp Killer opened the show with some Jimi Hendrix. The screens illuminated with a shot of his turntables as a second photo embedded the palm-tree-haired electronicist in the center, looking like an early Jim Henson production.

Gaslamp weaved through Nirvana and The Kingsmen during what amounted to a 15-minute performance, a few hours short of his typical night’s work.

The rap duo Shabazz Palaces followed. Their minimalist approach of MC and live percussion seemed dwarfed by the overwhelming venue, but they provided sufficient swagger for the diverse crowd shuffling their way in.

Thundercat, the fleet-fingered bassist and Kendrick Lamar collaborator, seemed the most excited to be onstage. Along with keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer Justin Brown, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner went to work on his double-necked electric bass. The trio was unrelenting in its display of instrumental dexterity (despite some technical issues). Thundercat elicited woos for his rapid-fire solos while Brown never let up, providing a barrage of fills and energetic drive.

Halfway through the set, Thundercat removed his jacket to reveal a pair of red boxing shorts, giving him the honor of Most Casually Dressed Artist to command the spotlight of the Bowl. He pointed to the sky and shouted an acknowledgement of jazz pianist Austin Peralta, his former bandmate and best friend, who likely would have played a large role in the evening’s festivities had he not succumbed to pneumonia four years ago at the age of 22.

“Lotus And The Jondy,” Thundercat’s tribute to his late friend, was full of spirit, pushing a rather sinister groove that entranced the crowd. When he finished, Thundercat plainly announced former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald as his guest. The stunned crowd gave muted applause, hesitant to believe the notorious prankster. McDonald waved and then in a move that not one of the 15,000 fans in attendance could have predicted, the group played through “What A Fool Believes.” It was an honest, straightforward performance of the 1979 yacht-rock hit.

McDonald turned out to be the lone surprise guest for the night—which was somewhat odd, considering the number of high-profile musicians with whom Flying Lotus and Thundercat have collaborated. The quartet closed with Thundercat’s “Them Changes,” the dance-floor single from last year’s EP Where The Giants Roam, leaving many in the audience both bemused and impressed.

Funk pioneer George Clinton is 75 years old and moves like it onstage. He paced the front of the performance space gingerly, and at one point spun around in an office chair. He was joined by a dozen other musicians, vocalists and a guy who did some yoga poses in a big furry white hat.

Together, they rocked through some new tunes (Clinton will be releasing an album on Brainfeeder next year) before launching into a raucous house-party medley featuring classics like “Flashlight,” “Give Up The Funk” and “Atomic Dog.” Clinton’s voice was a raspy husk, but he seemed to be having fun egging on his much younger bandmates.

Flying Lotus, the brains behind Brainfeeder, closed out the show. The DJ has always embraced darkness in his productions, using anguished screams and swampy synths to fuel his unique style of electronic music. On his most recent album—2014’s You’re Dead!—pianist Herbie Hancock and Thundercat help push the aesthetic toward interstellar swing. Though both collaborators were in attendance at the show, Flying Lotus attempted to carry an entire hour by himself.

But one man and a deck full of electronics wasn’t going to be enough to light up the Hollywood Bowl, so he and a team of video artists including longtime collaborator Strangeloop lit up several hundred feet of the stage’s facade with vibrating fractals and seizure-inducing geometry, encasing Flying Lotus in a wall of projection screens.

Images revolved around the headliner as he pumped his fist and mysteriously operated his machinery, appearing to simultaneously float in space and burst into flames.

This was theater, a visually stunning performance with one man standing center stage. But it wasn’t a sacred stage to Lotus. He complained multiple times about his monitor and stepped out from behind the curtains to perform as his rapping alter ego Captain Murphy, asking the audience to “bear with me” as he was going to try some new material. The Hollywood Bowl is not the stage for new material.

Captain Murphy fulfilled his rap-star fantasies and engaged his ego for far too long, serving as his own DJ while walking around the front-row seats and reaching for a few outstretched hands.

Flying Lotus’ set lost momentum toward the end, sponging up an extra 20 minutes that could have been used to highlight another great artist on the Brainfeeder roster. The label’s catalog is pushing a revolution of sound with each new artist. If only Flying Lotus had invited some of them instead of Captain Murphy. DB

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