August 4, 2016
In today’s ubiquitous, always-on society, it’s pretty tough to keep anything ‘underground.’ Despite being a Grammy-winning band of musical savants with thousands of fans, and millions of YouTube hits, Snarky Puppy is the biggest ‘underground’ band going.
Formed in 2005 by band leader/bassist Michael League at North Texas University, Snarky Puppy (SP) is a rotating collective of master musicians (aka ‘the Fam’) who lace together moments of brilliance in their live performances. That brilliance was on display recently at the impressive SFJAZZ Center, with SP playing a series of shows for their rabid fan base.
On Thursday evening League and ‘the Fam’ took to the SFJAZZ stage and stunned the packed house with a two-hour set that makes the case that they are the most talented band on the planet. Performing as a 10-piece, Snarky Puppy were pure combustion showing off an explosive mix of funk/jazz/ fusion that has not been seen since the days of Weather Report.
With the crowd still settling into their seats, League started the evening’s fireworks by laying down the bubbling bass lines that triggered ‘GO’ from the latest Snarky Puppy album ‘Culcha Vulchas’ their first studio recording in 8 years. Immediately the SFJAZZ Center, a showcase venue with impeccable acoustics perfectly suited for appreciating a big band like SP, was floating.
The crowd was captivated as League counted off the next number, his voice resonating as clearly as if the audience was on stage with the band. The next thing you know the seductive jazz/ funk pulse of the opus ‘Lingus’ (‘We Like it Here’ – 2014) was slithering through the sound system.
Highlighted by some of the tastiest, most powerful horns this side of Tower of Power, and the mad scientist artistry of Bobby Sparks on Moog, Snarky Puppy scored a ‘perfect 10’ with ‘Lingus’ as in 10-plus minutes of maniacal musical genius being traded back and forth. The band smiled and handed off leads one to the other as if they were passing a mythic musical joint around to expand the minds of anyone in close proximity.
Being that SP has a constantly revolving door of characters joining their jamboree, the joint was getting passed to some seriously talented players who jumped in with limited exposure to the rest of the band. Keeping the heartbeat of the set behind the drum kit was none other than the Bay Area’s own Will Kennedy the phenomenal backbeat of Yellowjackets, and he did so with effortless flair.
Whereas other instruments get to occasionally take a beat or two to rest, the drummer does not get that luxury, and in the context of Snarky Puppy’s complex arrangements the drummer does not even really get a chance to coast. Put it this way, Kennedy sat in and owned the drum throne that is usually occupied by the trio of SP drummers that currently grace the cover of Modern Drummer Magazine (Sept 2016), and he did it flawlessly…like he was in on creating the music from the start.
He was not the only special guest on the Snarky Puppy roster this evening. Sitting in with the impeccable horn section was the fiery talent of Rashawn Ross (Dave Matthews Band) on trumpet. It was amazing to watch him blend with the brass section, not only with his playing, but with the orchestration of the brass players who took turns stepping up to the front individually and as a unit. Ross himself got to step up front and center to take a couple of leads, notably with the trumpets taking the focus of ‘Shofukan’ (‘We Like It Here’).
As incredible as it was to watch such immensely talented musicians display their craft so well, it was an equal pleasure to see how much fun they were having while doing it. Snarky Puppy sincerely enjoy the music they play for the sake of playing it and with each other. In fact, when any of the players stepped up for a solo section, the others stayed onstage and were laughing and applauding in amazement as they watched one another blow minds.
It is for this reason that Snarky Puppy will likely continue to be the biggest underground band on the planet. There is endless ability and no apparent ego in this band. Who else could change lanes from funk to rock to Samba to swing to reggae to jazz….all within the same song and make it all sound like it fits? Hmmm, maybe that quirky band that started from the North Texas University music department with the weird name? Snarky Puppy….take a listen and you are sure to smile and recommend it to a friend too……just tell them not to tell others. We need to keep this an underground secret after all.
SET LIST: GO | Lingus | Semente | Grown Folks | Gemini | Tio Macaco | Shofukan || Jan Jan (Grant Green cover)
For more information on Snarky Puppy, see their website.
Top photo by Ronald Davis.