BRAINFEEDER Feeds The Hollywood Bowl An Auditory Spectacle REVIEW+PHOTOS: Flying Lotus, Funkadelic ft. George Clinton and Parliament, Thundercat, Shabazz Palaces & The Gaslamp Killer @ Hollywood Bowl 9/17/16
“The best thing about tonight is connecting all these universes together.”
Thus spoke Flying Lotus at the Hollywood Bowl on September 17th, 2016 when he took the stage under that famous white arch. From Brainfeeder’s own broad slate of artists to their burgeoning relationship with Parliament-Funkadelic, from the broader global jazz community to deep in the Los Angeles underground beat scene, there was certainly no shortage of universes connecting as Stephen Ellison’s company, musical work, and the community within which he shines so bright were added to the canon of all who’ve played at that great amphitheater in the hills.
So it felt like more than just another concert at the Bowl. It felt like a celebration, if not exactly a homecoming. And it’s easy to see why: no other LA-based music label has achieved such broad multi-genre critical success, acknowledged by fans and journos as pushing the cutting edge forward with a library’s worth of artists in a range of interrelated genres and sub-genres. But before there was Brainfeeder there was Flying Lotus, not only label head but one of those visionary musicians himself. He’s here too, the evening organized to climax with his headlining performance to close the event. As if these alone weren’t enough.
“What? A deejay?!!!” blurted a reviewer from another publication as The Gaslamp Killer took to the stage for a short set. Amidst so many great live acts and FlyLo’s spectacular closing set, it could be tempting to pass over the DJ sets that opened the night and transitioned between each of the acts leading up to FlyLo’s hourlong closer. But this was no filler music; there could be no better opening selector this night than GLK, manning the tap root back to the underground, to Low End Theory, heartpulse of the LA beat scene. A decade on, that weekly club cum particle accelerator where the collision of electronic music and hip-hop could synthesize new matter. It’s a synthesis that only could have happened in America’s most luminous multicultural cosmopolis, Los Angeles.
But before there was Brainfeeder there was Low End Theory, and Alpha Pup, the connections pushing things more toward homecoming territory. Even Daddy Kev moving in the direction of the mixing console at the Bowl just as you might see him at that dark little club in Lincoln Heights, having conversations in the shadow of big speakers.
But something was missing: the subfrequency harmonics, the sub-bass sound waves LET’s original custom sound system was built to navigate. In every set there is always that moment, where that sound comes in for the first time. It’s what could convince your ears ten years ago that you were hearing something new, and seeing something that was more like a movement than another night at a club. The Gaslamp Killer had played for several minutes already and if he’d kept at it just like that it would have been plenty satisfying, but I knew there was another gear. You must remember, these are gentlemen committed to low end theory as their operating philosophy. No one coaxes more low frequency modulation from speakers of all kinds than this crowd does. Whether it’s in your earbuds, car sound systems, or in front of crowds from Black Rock to Tokyo, they regularly persuade audio equipment to overachieve. I looked up at the Bowl’s elegant hanging stacks and wondered if they could even do it.
Finally it hit. Like a tidal wave. A big, slow one.
The speakers—barely—passed the test. Had the sound system at the Hollywood Bowl, accustomed to LA Phil and smooth summer jazz, ever transduced such dimension-expanding levels of gravity warping sub-bass? It was like a christening, letting the city know what’s been going down at the Airliner all these years. This is not the old-style bass that pounds your gut and makes you nauseous. This is different. It’s more like water, a fluid surrounding you. Swimming. It still might make you nauseous. You might drown. If you like it, try wiping that smile off yer face. If you’ve never heard it before, try picking your jaw off the floor.
I’d seen a few couples on the way in to the show that looked like they might have picked up their tickets as part of a summer jazz package, perhaps not fully aware of the breadth of the Brainfeeder sound. Had they known what they were getting into? I thought of them at this moment. I hoped they were okay. In the afterglow of his new full-length release Instrumentalepathy, GLK shadowed the contours of the slow wave as if he was emanating the energy himself, which from the look of it he may well have been.
Seattle-based future funk spaceship Shabazz Palaces materialized from just outside the immediate Brainfeeder family to wire into the circuitry. The duo produced an affecting, powerful performance that connected GLK’s beats on the one hand to the live groove of Thundercat that was coming, while simultaneously taking us deeper into the complex Brainfeeder headspace.
Eyes shielded like an astronaut behind a mirrored blue visor, Ishmael Butler’s programming and flow, verging at times toward spoken word poetry, provided the motive force while Tendai Maraire supported with vocals and a never-ending range of percussion and vocals. On “New Black Wave” Butler and Maraire showcased their signature sound, the atmospheric texture and heavily filtered rhythmic structures that continue through “Youlogy” and “Forerunner Foray”. At once future-focused and tribal, they’ve machined a hypnotic, intoxicating concoction that even still is unforgiving and uncompromising.
Giving the summer jazz crowd something to connect with, Thundercat opened with a lovely, gentle “Lone Wolf and Cub” before stepping up to “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” then wrangling warbling, gooey depths out of an iconic double-fret bass almost as big as the Bowl arch. His trio ramped up the energy over the course of the set, the focus shifting from Thundercat’s noodling low end explorations and sweet vocals in the first couple tracks toward Justin Brown’s first-class drum work by the time they dropped “Lotus and the Jondy”.
But then it was time for Thundercat to pull a FlyLo-style mindfuck, bringing out Michael McDonald as the surprise guest of the night. The whole audience seemed speechless, unsure how to react. Laughing, Thundercat told them: “You can do better than that! It’s Michael McDonald, seriously!”
Thundercat backed McDonald for a fairly typical but rousing rendition of Doobie Brothers classic “What A Fool Believes” worthy for the sheer strangeness of it all. His arrival out of left field no doubt brought one more thrill to the night, yet another tentacle of connection where Brainfeeder reaches out and sucks in another part of the music world. Is it feeding brains or feeding on them? McDonald stayed on for Thundercat’s closer “Them Changes,” not just keeping up with the original trio but adding another tripped out keyboard solo to one of the bassist’s core tracks.
That and Thundercat’s energy ramp prepped the crowd for a chunky dose of P-Funk. From the first moments of “Mothership Connection” through a sparkling ten-song set, Funkadelic kept the time portal to the 1970s wide open, pounding out full-bore performances of Parliament-Funkadelic classics “Give up the Funk” and “One Nation Under A Groove”. With the P-Funk family filling the stage, the passion literally beamed out and brought the hills to yet another stop along the journey through the Brainfeeder sound.
See, this is the thing about Brainfeeder. With some it might just be time to party, but with Brainfeeder it’s also a chance to reach back, to connect another universe. Everything it does fits at some point in this big word cluster of musical sub-genres, grooving to each adjacent sub-genre with and within every track, collab, release, or signing. This is part of what makes Brainfeeder what it is. Just as it can plug into the Alpha Pup family and grow from there, it fits on the summer schedule at the Hollywood Bowl, or in the global Warp Records IDM empire, or the KCRW rotation.
It’s a scope that would keep a team of musicologists busy but they are not content leaving pristine ideas in an ivory tower. They are not only masters of the knowledge, they are master practitioners of its use.
Clinton and fam did what they do: they brought the funk. The play was at times woozy though Parliament-Funkadelic have always kept a fairly loose jam. But their time on stage was emphatically not just a history lesson. They were also pointing the way to a Funkadelic future. Closing with updated arrangements of “Atomic Dog” and “Funkentelechy,” it seemed possible to get a sonic glimpse of what the Brainfeeder/P-Funk partnership might bring. New songs that I wasn’t able to identify sounded tight, even symphonic. Keep an ear out for these new releases. With good mics on everyone and FlyLo near the studio, it’s going to be very interesting. It could become the Brainfeeder equivalent of Daft Punk’s collaboration with Nile Rodgers et al.
Closing out the night, Flying Lotus brought a confident set: spacey, dark, and tremulous, then settling into the chunky beats and mysterious dreamland orchestrations of “Zodiac Shit” then “Coronus, The Terminator.” His first act complete, he guided us towards funky remixes that echoed George Clinton, leading into a two-song boat ride through the land of Captain Murphy. Through it all the light show took the lead, and it was almost as if Flying Lotus the filmmaker was beginning to emerge, content on this night to soundtrack the abstract visual experience that was engulfing everyone there, audience and artist alike.
Yet still, the set felt small and intimate, friends tripping hard together. He snuck in some Aphex Twin. This wasn’t a set by someone with something to prove. It was the right vibe to set, the right tracks from the FlyLo orbit for the moment: uncompromising, spiraling downward while reaching for the next level. He probably would have played the same tracks that night in a little house in the hills, but we all just so happened to be together with 18,000 other people at the Hollywood Bowl, so that was how it was going to be.
Before closing the set with a toned-down and quietly triumphant “Never Catch Me,” Ellison emerged from the slab of pulsing screens projecting nuclear light all around him, to catch a glimpse of what we could see. He climbed out on the catwalk amongst the crowd, peppering in thank you’s and final recognition to all those involved. He seemed overwhelmed, humble, and inspired.
“Are the visuals really beautiful tonight?”
Yes, yes they were. They were some of the most incredible projected visuals of that type I’d ever seen. Robotic snakes writhing into geometric shards of light, changing so fast into new, full-spectrum mathematical landscapes, never repeating, that words can’t hope to keep up. Strangeloop and friends are pushing hard into new visual territory. Or maybe the pushing is over and they’re simply in orbit now, flowing out a new visual language.
FlyLo was right to come take a look from our side of the screens. But then the lights came up on him and the effect—master DJ surrounded on every side by boundary-obliterating retinal stimulation—was gone.
It would be easy to think watching him perform that Flying Lotus is having all the fun. He’s certainly having a lot, and deserving every bit. But he missed the best part tonight. That was for us in the crowd, when the lights were down, the visuals up, watching and listening to Flying Lotus in the groove, feeding our brains.
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