Photo by Colin McLaughlin
[I] admit it. Even after many years of music writing, I still have no sense of whether or not an album, or single, or artist’s commercial products are good or bad. Take producer/artist Flying Lotus. Those fish-slap beats, clunky bits of proto-industrial noise, and psych-jazz electronic intrusions…surely those are too much for the general populace? Right?
Yet, there Until The Quiet Comes is, squeezing into the top 50 of the Billboard charts; there he is collaborating with Thom Yorke and Hodgy Beats, and there he was on Friday night packing Portland’s Roseland Theater with able bodies thrilled to worship at the altar of FlyLo, Captain Murphy, or any other version of Steven Ellison he wanted to offer.
As all good oracles do, Ellison provided the pomp and spectacle. His laptop/mixer set up was placed between two large screens. DMT trip-like animations played on both simultaneously, mixing together to assume as close to a 3D experience as you can get without being forced to wear special eyewear. You could catch a glimpse of him when the light hit just so, or just watch his silhouette bounce with the music, throw its hands in the air, and generally look lost in the majesty of his own creations.
For a show whose success was so dependent on its tech side, there was a looseness to the whole affair. Ellison would intrude on tracks to make a corny joke, or comment on trying to find a particular tune that he put together on an airplane. In one inspired moment, he killed the music entirely and came out from behind the scrim to freestyle a few verses over nothing but the handclaps already in progress.
If there is any knock to be made on that approach, it’s that Ellison didn’t maintain as tight a flow as he is capable of on his albums, the mixes he’s done for Stones Throw or the Brainfeeder podcast. But I’d much rather he throw a few curveballs at the capacity crowd and keep them guessing, instead of just running through a tightly configured set of songs that had been road-tested until rote. It kept the performance alive and challenging.
The audience seemed up to the provocation, especially after being faced with a 45 minute set of Herbie Hancock-styled jazz fusion from Brainfeeder family members and Flying Lotus collaborator Thundercat. The bassist/vocalist (known in real life as Stephen Bruner) is set to release his second album Apocalypse – which was co-written and co-produced by Ellison – and the preview he gave of what was within it was an equally affecting blast to the senses, minus all the eye-popping visuals. Instead of visual fireworks, he and his backing band let their instrumental prowess do the wowing.
Through the songs, Bruner showed off the deep relationship he has with vintage R&B, whacked hip-hop, and progressive jazz, fluttering his fingers all over his six-string bass while singing impassioned pleas to lovers old and new. Bless him, but he was often upstaged by his drummer brother Ronald Bruner, Jr. The dreadlocked percussionist was a whirlwind of swinging hair and loose limbs that could solo with ferocity, and lay back with a deep pocket groove when it was needed. He and the songs from Flying Lotus’s most recent album that Thundercat is featured on were the only things that roused the audience from their brow-furrowing and chatter. The connections that tied together the music of Thundercat and Flying Lotus may have been lost on many of the fans, but for those who were following the thread, the pairing made for a sublime evening.