If you have seen my earlier reviews, you will know that I am a massive fan of US jazz fusion supergroup Snarky Puppy. Too many times in previous years have I seen them headline the Melbourne International Jazz Festival or tour their latest album, and been unable to attend due to my age. But this year, I vowed to see them, at last an adult. Within a minute of receiving the email that Snarky Puppy had announced a new concert in Melbourne, I had the ticket booking page bookmarked to my laptop, and the opening time for tickets added to my phone’s calendar. I was not going to miss out this time!
So last Friday night, stomachs filled with Japanese delicacies, two mates and myself made the trek down to The Forum. To our surprise, more than 45 minutes after doors opened for the show, the queue was still lengthy and literally went around the block. Patiently and eagerly, we waited in the crisp winter weather. Despite the cold temperatures and pitter-patter of rain, there was a buzz amongst the crowd waiting for entry. Vape smoke filled the alley-way and a neighbouring bar blasted soft house, and I realised how incredible it was to be with a crowd of people who all shared a passion for a band that I also admire so greatly.
Once we made it inside, supporting act Michelle Willis was already on stage, performing songs from her latest album “See Us Through”. She was accompanied by Snarky Puppy greats, including bandleader Michael League, as well as Larnell Lewis (drums), Michael Maher (vocals) and Mark Lettieri (guitar). To my surprise, and surely that of other concert-goers, Michael League was not only on bass but assisting on backing vocals with Maher (Maz). It was a true bonus to see the instrumentalist ensemble members singing decently too.
Michelle, also to my surprise, had the full crowd’s attention, and, in songs like “It’ll Rain Today” and “See Us Through”, had the crowd mesmerised by her performance. Around myself, there were many romantic swaying couples, enjoying her delicate, lyrical vocal style and harmonic richness. For a supporting artist, who is still relatively raw and developing, Michelle performed impeccably, and captivated a youthful and energetic crowd. It made me realise how respectful people who truly love and admire music are to fellow musicians; I realise it’s soppy but it is actually quite touching. Well-deserved warm rounds of applause accompanied the completion of each tune and her set. Melbourne would most definitely welcome Michelle’s return, perhaps as a headliner with a longer set list.
As Michelle left the stage, the energetic buzz from outside returned, and the chatter amongst the crowd was excited and frenzied. Many stocked up on drinks, and attempted to gain the best spot they could to see the superstar line up before they came out.
Michael League led the pack of nine out onto stage (see the personnel list below). The audience of more than 1400 cheered, and the band kicked off new track “Grown Folks”. I’ve seen plenty of live performances of Snarky Puppy live online and off their “We Like It Here” DVD but nothing could top the incredible feeling of watching them right in front of my eyes, with the live sound of the horns, or watching Michael League pull off his renowned ‘groovy pouts’. Bob Reynolds on tenor sax led the improvised solos, and the crowd went crazy. His teasing of melodic fragments over the bass and drum groove had the crowd whooping and cheering along. Chris Bullock later emerged with his distorted saxophone solo, which had many heads bopping up and down. Each instance of the tune’s defining bass lick fired the crowd up more. League and the band really had the crowd going, and it was only one tune in.
Next came “Tarova”, which I doubted would make the set without organ soloist Cory Henry, but Bullock pulled off the playful melody very well. Solos both from Maz, now on trumpet, and Nate Werth, percussion, were cheered just as much as the first tune of the night. Next came “Semente”, League’s homage to his Brazilian heritage. Bullock featured on flute, and the polyrhythmic grooves being bounced around the ensemble had the crowd bopping to the Latin feel of the piece. The band sounded tight and the audience was loving every minute of this gig.
Snarky Puppy then took us on a trip back to one of their tunes that I first fell in love with, “Thing of Gold”. Once again, the line up being without keyboardist Shaun Martin lost the magic of the original performance, but superstar Justin Stanton, who alternated between trumpet and keyboard all night, took the beautiful melodic line, and made it his own. I personally found it hard not to compare to Martin’s original performance, but he did a really good job. And looking around the band as the crowd cheered the conclusion of another epic piece, I knew there was something big coming…
At the first pluck of the electric guitar, I knew the next song was “Outlier” off “We Like It Here”. Bob Reynolds absolutely paraded his tenor saxophone mastery in his lengthy improvised solo, just as he did in the original recording, and League and Lewis’ precarious accompaniment really allowed Reynolds to go to town with his fragmented solos and soaring runs. I thought nothing could possibly top this performance, and looking at the clock, I was shocked to see nearly an hour had passed. How much more did Snarky Puppy have to offer?
Snarky Puppy slowed things down next, to perhaps my least favourite track off their new album “Culcha Vulcha” (which I have reviewed earlier). However, on stage, it did seem to make a lot more sense, with Bullock’s flirtatious flute utterances and melodic lines. With plenty of synthesized material and its slow tempo, I missed the blaring horns in this track, but it was a nice sea change for the live performance. That being said, I was hoping the nine-piece could pick up the pace for the next track.
The band answered my prayers with their hit track “What About Me?”, playing around with the tempo early on, and bringing it up to its driving pace, with the relentless drums and tenacious bass. The entire band, bar Lettieri and Lewis, cleared the stage for an incredible guitar solo that passed through many stages and genres, including a break into a blues shuffle at one point. As the ensemble re-emerged, Lettieri drew his solo back into the original groove, and the band built back up to its full capacity. And that was when The Forum had its roof blown off by drumming superstar Larnell Lewis, who not only matched, but also raised the bar set by his solo off the original recording with a mind-blowing performance, which Michelle kindly graced to the world via Facebook. How someone can get an audience going by literally not playing their instrument is unbelievable. This man is a superstar, and “What About Me?” earns my highlight of the concert.
With the crowd still cheering profusely, the band cleared the stage, leaving pianist Bill Laurance to improvise an impressive solo, hinting at Romantic-era harmonic and emotional inspirations. The audience, mesmerised, patiently tried to decipher what piece Bill’s solo would lead to, and he certainly gave us no hints, until he fell into the unmistakeable piano bass riff of “Ready Wednesday” off the band’s album “Tell Your Friends”. While most of the crowd applauded Laurance’s incredible piano performance, one woman took it upon herself to do what we all wanted to do; throw a bra (hopefully clean) on stage for the pianist. League emerged from side-stage, impressed by the band’s new found ‘sex idol’, and hung the bra up on a keyboard stand as the band’s trophy for the evening. There was something rather humble about the episode, as the band playfully made light of the incident as they played the piece exceptionally.
The band, having ‘finished’ their set, cleared the stage, and the crowd’s screaming and applause roused them out once more for their encore. This was not before League made some words thanking the crowd and emphasising the importance of ticket sales and purchasing albums to keep the band going, before offering the crowd a free sample of other artists from Snarky Puppy’s label GroundUp. He also made fun of the label’s upcoming music festival at the height of Miami’s winter early next year. It was so nice to see the musical mastermind being an average person, enjoying a laugh with the locals.
The band played “Shofukan”, another of their big tunes off “We Like It Here”, to see the crowd out. What was, I assume, assigned to be Stanton’s trumpet solo became an exchange between the trumpeter and Bullock on saxophone, after the saxophonist snuck in. The playful banter around the band, and Maz’s laid back attitude as he enjoyed the solos, whilst drinking the first of many well deserved ciders, left me smiling as the band broke into the explosive coda of the work, with the crowd joining in the singing reprise. And before I knew it, Snarky Puppy, my musical idols, were gone off stage, and off to their next performance on a long and rather exhaustive world tour.
I can officially say that I have checked witnessing Snarky Puppy live off my ever-growing bucket list, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last encounter with the band. If this was just a nine-piece line up, I truly look forward to seeing a larger ensemble, especially with keyboard superstars Shaun Martin and Cory Henry in the mix. But, for now, my mind has been blown and I will take a little while to recover. To Snarky Puppy and Michelle Willis, you guys are awesome and are even more breathtaking live. Keep up the incredible work, because you inspire so many youthful musicians (myself included) to dream big.
Snarky Puppy Personnel – Bob Reynolds (saxophone), Chris Bullock (saxophone/flute), Michael Maher (trumpet/flugelhorn), Justin Stanton (trumpet/keyboard), Nate Werth (percussion), Michael League (bass), Mark Lettieri (guitar), Larnell Lewis (drums) and Bill Laurance (keyboard).