CapitalBop’s ‘Loft’ Series Friday show a hot, uneven mess

Sam Prather’s Groove Orchestra is a big winner. But Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, not so much.

Sam Prather's Groove Orchestra.
Sam Prather's Groove Orchestra in action at the old Hecht Company warehouse. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2015 – As a 30-year resident of Northeast D.C., I was keenly curious to see how the DC Jazz Festival’s CapitalBop “Loft” series in the old Hecht Co. warehouse on New York Avenue was going to be staged.

Over time, I have been pleasantly surprised by the opening of a MOM’S grocery store, Nike fitness and a Planet Fitness gym, but must admit that normally I fly by the new Douglas Development multi-use property and have never stopped to shop. Even so, when I saw the familiar red umbrella and U Street Parking valet stand near the last light before the West Virginia Avenue circle, I felt a sense of relief.

I parked my Crowne Vic on the spacious lot and was directed to the last loading dock on the left. There, I encountered the ragtag CapitolBop reservation team seated at a makeshift desk where they proceeded to check me off the media list for this “ticketed” event: a June 12 performance by headliner Thundercat. He was preceded on the program by a local band that turned out to be quite impressive.

Getting warmer. Signage on the way to the Hecht Company warehouse loft performance space. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)
Getting warmer. Signage on the way to the Hecht Company warehouse loft performance space. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

The CapitolBop staffers directed me up a narrow but well-lit double staircase to the third level of the structure where I ran a gauntlet of urban art displays before finding and entering the soundstage where food, beverage and service co-sponsors had set up conference-style booths.

I migrated stage left to the V.I.P. lounge and encountered the only Baby Boomers in the venue – Sam & Cynthia Prather – who happened to be the proud parents of the opening act, Sam Prather’s Groove Orchestra.

As it turned out, Sam Prather’s Groove Orchestra was the hit of the evening’s program. Led by the 2012 Downbeat Student Award-winner Sam Prather, this five-piece band is an eclectic group of D.C.-based musicians and vocalists trained in jazz but filled with an equal love for groove-oriented music hailing from all corners of the world.

Under Prather’s accomplished keyboard leadership the band launched into a distinctive and energy-filled set, highlighted by a dynamic horn session and excellent contributions from a series of revolving lead singers from Howard University’s Afro Blue choral group. Among them was Christie DeShields, who delivered a great cover of Leon Ware’s “I Want to Be Where You Are.”

Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner seemed to be put off by Friday’s heat and humidity. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Unfortunately, after this kinetic hour-and-thirty-minute performance by Prather and his Orchestra, plus a 30-minute change-over intermission to get the soundstage ready for the evening’s headliner, the second half of this show proved anti-climactic. The “Legendary Thundercat,” as he was touted by emcee Joe Smokes Wisdom and DJ Underdog throughout the evening run-up to his set, turned out to be a major disappointment.

Better known by his stage name Thundercat, Stephen Bruner is an American multi-genre bass player, producer and singer hailing from Los Angeles. Bruner has been described as a major contributor to and “at the creative epicenter” of Kendrick Lamar‘s highly acclaimed album “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

But after the Groove Orchestra’s high energy opening session, Bruner came out on stage… complaining about the heat. “Are we in Brazil?” he queried without a hint of humor, as if sultry summers were a surprise newsflash for D.C. residents.

Friday's audience was ready for a good time despite the heat. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)
Friday’s audience was ready for a good time despite the heat. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Thundercat then kicked off his set with two murky slow jams, keeping his eyes mostly closed as he tried to locate his inner groove. His highly-touted reputation as a first-rate session musician for his work on Erykah Badu‘s 2008 “New Amerykah” release did not carry over to his CapitalBop performance here, as both his demeanor and his set fell mostly flat.

Despite Bruner’s underwhelming performance and a sound system that was not exactly the greatest, Friday’s stylish crowd of mostly millennials — estimated at 500 or so – enthusiastically endured the $25 cover charge, not to mention the twin discomforts of the sweltering heat and the concrete standing-room-only loft warehouse setting where, back in the day, the old Hecht Co. department store once stocked and distributed mattresses and living room furniture.

Problems and all, welcome to the new reality of Jazz In the Hood!

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