Brainfeeder, the electronic and hip-hop focused label out of Los Angeles, presented their very best to a sold out audience at Chicago’s Metro on May 18th. The bill included JBS, Teebs, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus. I walked into the venue and shuffled my way through a friendly and excited crowd towards the center. Small clouds of smoke drifted just overhead, fans of the special brand of electronic beat music coming from California chattered excitedly, but it seemed everyone had their eyes on the stage, waiting with great anticipation for an artist to walk on stage. The first performer was Teebs.
Shoulders relaxed, standing coyly, Mtendere Mandowa, professionally known as Teebs addressed the crowd before going to work on a mixer and SP-404 sampler. Teebs is another California member of the Brainfeeder family. He makes beat-centric, colorful, instrumental music. Beat-making musicians have been crowding each other for the past few years, but Teebs remains a unique voice among producers that seems fixated on following trends.
His tone was friendly and modest, like a friend about to share his personal work with you in a shared space. Teebs crafted a beautiful set by hanging vocal loops over natural, ambient sounds. Glazed guitar samples were adorned with jazz bass lines. Teeb's music is unique in the way it transports listeners. Repetition becomes hypnotic; delay and reverb saturated samples that feel like they’ve been cut short hang like a fog; suddenly a sonic landscape grows from a language controlled by a smiling architect standing behind a mixer. The tracks come to an end and you’re greeted by your earnest tour guide. Teebs asked if everyone was “hanging in there” – he wisely chose a slower set as one of the first acts to play. His stage banter was earnest and devoid of any sort of rock star affectation, despite the fact the crowd was eager to hear him speak. A few turns through songs and we were at the incredible “Arthur’s Birds”. Teebs stopped afterwards and laughingly asked, “Do you guys watch adult swim?” – the network that had been playing Flying Lotus and Brainfeeder folk’s tunes for years – before a soft wave of rolling drums swept in to finish the set.
Thundercat (Steve Bruner) took the stage to cheers from the crowd and was joined by keyboardist Dennis Hamm and drummer Thomas Pridgen. Each member of the band proved to be incredible players, able to hold their own against Bruner, which is an impressive feat. The stage was lit plainly, but complicated rigs aren’t necessary to set the mood or build ambiance given the brand of inventive and progressive funk Thundercat plays.
The set seemed liked it was over before it started, but a check of my watch showed that quite a bit of time had passed. Bruner, when told his time on stage would soon be over chucked and noted that they had barely played through five songs but, “This is what happens when you let jazz take over”.
Drum kits and turntables were whisked off the stage before Stephen Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, appeared. In their place was one console holding Ellison’s mixing equipment which placed the artist between two mesh screens . He walked out on stage and began what would prove to be an epic set. After his intro which patched together the title track from his latest Until the Quiet Comes, Ellison jumped into a pitched up version of Hudson Mohawkes’s “Furnace Loop” to the crowds delight.
There comes a moment in many shows when a crowd loses control, where dancing stops being reserved and each person loses themselves – both times I’ve seen Flying Lotus, he seems to unleash this quality in an audience perfectly with “Furnace Loop”. He followed this with his instrumental for Lil Wayne’s “I Feel Like Dying”. Before the tune could settle, we were presented with “Do the Astral Plane”.
Each time Flying Lotus transitioned songs, the crowd erupted, moving harder and faster than before. Every new track was everyone’s favorite song, even the ones they hadn’t heard before. The DJ-ing stopped momentarily and Ellison walked out from behind his screen, beats still blasting and began to perform his Captain Murphy songs. Extraordinarily well produced, each Captain Murphy song has a distinctive dark and brooding character to them, like some evil monologue from a cheaply shot 70’s action flick. Ellison returned back behind the screen and played more tracks from his last two full length records, occasionally dropping in another artist’s track (Clams Casino’s “I’m God” beat was an unexpected surprise).
More tracks from the set included songs from the delightfully light Pattern + Grid World EP, harder songs with TNGHT’s “Higher Ground” and a remix of Mr. Oizo’s “$tunt$”, then back to more Captain Murphy songs, complete with animated video of Murphy’s disembodied cartoon head melting away to its skeleton and then reforming to the beat.
One of my favorite moments of the night came when a straight version of Kendrick Lamar’s ass shaking “Backseat Freestyle” dropped. The crowd screamed the verse, jumping, thrashing and fist pumping. Flying Lotus is not simply a production project that Ellison takes on the road- he is a true DJ. It’s rare to see a producer who is as adept on stage as he is in the studio.