After playing in Las Vegas, Snarky Puppy marched on to Salt Lake City for the first time ever. Just like the previous concert, this set draws from nearly ten years’ worth of material. Although the Commonwealth Room is a medium-sized venue (to the tune of 600 people), the crowd roars like there are 5,000 fans in attendance. The jubilant fans contribute to the energetic vibe of this show…and they also TOTALLY nail the polyrhythmic clapping on “Xavi.” At times, I found myself just as entertained by the audience as I was by the music…now that’s really saying something!
Embossed – Marcelo Woloski and Jason “JT” Thomas kick things off, and Mark Lettieri makes a bold entrance on the slide guitar. The horn section announces its arrival, and their three-part harmonies are tight and solid. Bobby Sparks grooves on the clavinet and Moog. Mark slowly builds his solo with some crunchy sustained drones before playing some speedy runs and ending with the phaser.
While We’re Young – Michael League and JT slink in with a nice groove before Bobby wails on the clavinet. The horns hop in with the melody, and Mark shines on the slide guitar. Everything cooks on low heat. Then Justin Stanton stretches on the Fender Rhodes and adds some beautiful reharmonization to the vamp. Justin definitely knows his way around each tune, and he always finds a way to spice things up! JT plays some syncopated rhythms to propel the solo vamp.
Bigly Strictness – I love how much fuller the horn section sounds whenever Bob Reynolds or Jay Jennings is on board. Add Chris Bullock’s arsenal of saxes to this tune, and it’s pure gold. I’m not sure who’s handling the synth bass – it could be either Michael or Justin. Bobby plays a short but sweet clavinet solo with the pinched, compressed effect…is it a wah, phaser, or none of the above? It sounds similar to the effect that Mark used the night before on his Chonks solo. If there are any gearheads who know what it is, let me know! Next, Mike “Maz” Maher tears it up with a stunning fuzzed-out trumpet solo. Like Bobby’s clavinet solo, it goes a mile a minute…but if you blink, you might miss it. Finally, we arrive at the third solo section where Zach Brock starts out with bluesy riffs before working his violin into a frenzy. (Is it me, or do the Pups usually use their most “rock-sounding” effects and pedals on this song?)
GØ – After Michael League welcomes the crowd, JT pre-games with a barrage of drum rolls, kicks, and cymbal crashes. Once he begins the groove, Michael adds some bass thumping and Marcelo adds some colorful touches using his timbales and metallic percussion. Mark delivers the first part of the melody and the crowd cheers. When the horn section plays the second part of the melody, I imagine a cloudy sky opening up to a rainbow…it’s THAT lush and gorgeous. The band plays the new arrangement with the altered bassline in the first verse and solo vamp. There are two early entrances from the guitar and the saxophones, but nothing too flagrant. Then we get a double saxophone feature with Chris rolling through the A section and Bob tackling the B section. My short analysis is that Chris has a brighter sound and more pointed articulation, while Bob has a darker tone and takes a more lyrical approach to his solos. But they both make it sound effortless. It’s great to hear their contrasting styles side-by-side…a rare opportunity! As Bob solos, JT and Marcelo toss in some stuttering fills without losing the rhythmic foundation. After the opening melody is repeated, Mark takes it out and flies high. Bobby’s organ percolates like coffee as the next song kicks off.
Gemini – this song reminds me of a simmering pot of soup. Starting out softly and building in intensity, every single “ingredient” adds more flavor and nuance and contributes so much to the greater whole. (Make no mistake, I love food – hence the coffee and soup analogies.) Michael uses a pick for a sharper sound on his bass. Maz and Michael sing the lead, and Zach doubles all the band’s upper-register parts (vocals, guitar, flute) with his trusty violin. When the song turns dark and stormy, it’s free improv time! Chris’s soprano sax is pretty high in the mix. After the band resumes the melody, Bobby brings the house down with a masterful organ display. Starting with a blank canvas, he transforms into a landscape with loads of texture, vibrance, and color. Is Bobby Sparks the Rembrandt of organ players? In my mind, yes.
Tio Macaco – Marcelo performs a piquant percussive prelude (alliteration for the win)! It sounds like he’s playing a one-handed triangle or elephant bell in one hand and hitting everything else with a drumstick in the other hand. If I’m not mistaken, he also keeps time with some rattles attached to a hi-hat foot pedal. That’s some serious coordination! Michael joins in on the krakebs and Chris plays the flute intro before the horns jump into the pool. Bob, Chris, Maz, and Justin turn the heat up with some nice woodwind and brass solos. Remember how we heard Chris and Bob’s unique styles in GØ? The same thing happens here with Maz and Justin on the trumpets! I think Maz has a brighter sound, and Justin seems to take a more lyrical approach. Finally, Marcelo and JT burn through their drums-and-percussion showcase. Marcelo switches fluidly from his hand drums to his mounted percussion rig, and JT’s timekeeping rivals that of a stopwatch. They sure know how to keep the listeners on their toes…it’s a solid TKO! The crowd flips its lid and Michael introduces the soloists.
Thing of Gold – after the standard verse and chorus (with Chris’s tenor sax and Bobby’s Moog at the front of the pack), Maz solos on either trumpet or flugelhorn. It gets deep. After the band navigates the key modulations, Bobby milks the outro, prompting Michael to say, “That’s Bobby Sparks on the Minimoog Model D…accept no substitutes!”
Xavi – Michael teaches the fans how to clap the 4:3 polyrhythm and boy, do they kick ass! They hold it down even as JT and Marcelo play the tricky drum groove. Michael: “Absolutely f****** fantastic, Salt Lake City!” After the intro, Chris whips out the soprano sax for the first solo. While the soprano sax isn’t my favorite instrument in the world, it sounds pretty good in Bullock’s hands. Then Zach steps forward with a powerful violin solo. He generates enough power to supply all of Salt Lake City with electricity. Like with most of his solos, Zach builds up from drawn-out ideas and works everything up to fever pitch. The percussionists break it down and the crowd confidently claps in 4:3 time to Bullock’s soprano melody. Michael adds some tasty bass fills just before the horn section enters. Justin delivers a bouncy Rhodes solo and has lots of fun in the high register of the keyboard. After the crowd claps to the 4:3 outro, Michael praises the audience’s work, and a fan shouts “WE’RE UTAH,” eliciting laughter from the crowd. Michael is quite amused: “Somebody just said, ‘We’re Utah’…like, don’t you know? Utah: the home of polyrhythms!”
Quarter Master (Encore 1) – This is a towering eighteen-minute version! After Michael introduces the band and crew, he brings out Roosevelt Collier to play lap steel guitar on this tried-and-true classic from GroundUp. JT, Marcelo, Michael, and Mark set up a groove that’s funky as hell. The horn section sounds pristine here – they’ve got those harmonies down COLD! Roosevelt and Mark trade bars. The horns shout behind them, and then everyone drops out except for the guitarists. Bobby floors it on the organ, and JT cranks out a solid backbeat. Then we get to the gospel section with the lush horn parts blending together. Soon it’s a free-for-all with everybody riffing all at once. Just when it seems like the party’s over…the band shifts to a funky Texas D major blues shuffle and Roosevelt shines again! Next, Bobby slays it on the clavinet for a few rounds. It really sounds like a guitar battle, but with one guy on a keyboard! To top it all off, Maz grabs the mic and smoothly sings a couple of lines from Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Cold Shot.” We rarely get to talk about vocals in a Snarky Puppy review, but Maz has a velvety voice and really knows how to sell the melody and lyrics. Mark plays a gritty solo. The shuffle lingers, the volume drops, and the Pups play two ascending key modulations into the next tune.
Lingus (Encore 2) – Justin churns out the opening chords, and the audience goes wild! After some sax and trumpet interplay, Michael takes a wicked bass solo and cleans up BIG TIME. Honestly, I wish he’d solo more often…he is a killer bassist! He’s got a truly inimitable style – there’s booming low notes, ringing harmonics, and some awesome sixteenth-note runs. During the final call-and-response with the horns, he even uses a gnarly wah-effect…that’s what I’m talking about! The crowd gives a huge ovation as Michael wraps things up and says goodnight.
FINAL THOUGHTS: What a fun and groovy show! Michael’s banter is wonderful, the band is on fire, and Roosevelt rocks! Snarky Puppy knows how to rock it at venues of all sizes. Two hours well spent. This show is definitely worth checking out. My selected standout tracks would be “Bigly Strictness,” “GØ,” “Tio Macaco,” “Xavi,” “Quarter Master,” and “Lingus.”
- Zach Brock: violin
- Bob Reynolds: saxophone
- Chris Bullock – tenor sax, flute, and alto flute
- Mike “Maz” Maher – trumpet, flugelhorn and vocals
- Justin Stanton – trumpet and keyboards
- Bobby Sparks – keyboards
- Mark Lettieri – guitar
- Michael League – bass and vocals
- Jason “JT” Thomas – drums
- Marcelo Woloski – percussion
- Roosevelt Collier on lap steel guitar on Quarter Master
- Matt Recchia – engineering and sound (front of house)
- Michael Harrison – monitors
- Nic Hard – mixing
About the Reviewer
Hi! I’m Doug, and I really love Snarky Puppy. I first learned about this supergroup in 2014 when some college friends introduced me to their albums Groundup, Family Dinner Volume 1 and We Like It Here. I was amazed by the caliber of talent and how all the parts (melody, harmony, rhythm, and accompaniment) came together seamlessly.
Then on July 31, 2015 my family and I went to the Newport Jazz Festival. Snarky Puppy was one of the featured artists along with Christian McBride, Chris Botti, Arturo Sandoval, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Jon Faddis, Lucky Peterson, Kneebody, and Jon Batiste & Stay Human. Over the course of ninety minutes, Snarky Puppy played a lot of material from WLIH, including the ultra-popular “Lingus.”
I was absolutely awestruck by the infectious grooves, the wild jazz harmonies, and the mind-blowing solos that each band member took. That performance changed my life. Although it is still the only Snarky Puppy concert I have attended, it certainly won’t be my last. I hope to see them perform in the United States very soon, once things start to open up in greater capacity after COVID-19.