This was a wonderful show at a wonderful venue! Red Rocks is an open-air amphitheater built into a giant rock structure in Colorado, with seating for over 9,500 people. The sound, the views, the opportunity to engage with thousands of spectators…no wonder Michael League says that it’s his favorite venue. Snarky Puppy performed as part of a special event with Michael Franti & Spearhead as headliners. Despite being a short set, the Pups still packed nine songs into their allotted time by leaving out extended soloist features (e.g. no percussion solo to close “Tarova”) and truncating the main solo sections by a minute or so. Yet each musician makes the most of their short solos, which further proves Snarky Puppy’s incredible talent and flexibility. A fan video will is linked at the end of this review.
Embossed – After the standard percussion opening, Mark Lettieri welcomes the massive crowd with the slide guitar melody. Bobby Sparks enters on Hammond B-3 organ, and then the three horns (Bob Reynolds, Chris Bullock, and Maz) jump into the back. WOW! This is a very lively recording…each part can be heard exceptionally well. Mark takes the first solo and sets a high bar. Bobby milks it on the Moog for all it’s worth.
Tarova – Bobby Sparks goes gangbusters on the organ and continues to shred after Justin’s synth and Michael’s bass drop out – it seems like there was a missed cue to play the opening melody. But Bobby plays it a few bars later and the song proceeds as usual. Maz comes on strong with a shrill trumpet solo, using plenty of his tried-and-true wah effect. He keeps coming back to the flat-5 (Db) and sharp-7 (F#) of the G-minor blues scale, which adds a unique contour to his solo.
Bigly Strictness – The harmonies between Bob, Chris, and Maz really pop! Bobby takes a short but fiery clavinet solo, and then moves to the Mellotron after his solo. (Until I watched the fan video, I had no idea he was covering the parts originally played by Shaun Martin.) Then Maz solos on his “Hendrix-trumpet.” Maz’s trumpet acrobatics astound me…it takes exceptional breath control to play a wind or brass instrument, and playing rapid-fire trumpet licks while hunched over a monitor is no small feat. For the final solo, Zach Brock switches on the wah pedal and throws in some slick blues fills for good measure. Bobby, Maz, and Zach: the triple threat on “Bigly Strictness!”
While We’re Young – After the standard opening (complete with Bobby’s clavinet lead), Justin Stanton delivers a lyrical Fender Rhodes solo. I love hearing how he re-harmonizes the vamp chords with his left hand while creating a bouncy soloistic line with his right hand…it’s brilliant as always!
Bad Kids to the Back – The rhythm section establishes a rock-steady groove for the horn section to wail over! Chris Bullock showcases his ability to play the entire range of the tenor saxophone in under two minutes. In one lick, he plays a low B-flat and runs up to a D in the altissimo range – wow! Then Mark and Zach play the dual lead before JT’s solo comes up. Of course, JT owns it and brings forth a splendid solo.
Xavi – Michael teaches the 4:3 polyrhythm lesson to the crowd before counting off. It’s really interesting to hear violin, flute, trumpet, and tenor sax handling the melody together. Usually it’s a combination of three, but not all four! Mark whips it out with a crazy solo that sounds like it’s in a different musical mode than the underlying A minor. Bob Reynolds gets his first solo of the evening and lays down a good one. After the crowd claps over Chris’s soprano sax part, Justin goes off on the Rhodes once again. Mason Davis joins Michael on the krakebs at the end as the audience claps the 4-over-3 polyrhythm. Michael is pleased: “Very nicely done, Red Rocks!”
Sleeper – Five words: Bobby Sparks kills his clavinet. It’s as incredible as one would expect it to be. Marcelo adds some cool rhythms and flourishes on the congas and bongos in the second verse before the Rhodes-clavinet solo interlude. After the final keyboard notes fade away, Michael introduces Bobby to the roaring crowd.
Tio Macaco – The Pups play the 2019 rearrangement sans electric bass for the first two choruses…Michael trades it in for a pair of krakebs. Bobby and Mark cook up a funky groove on their axes. Bob, Chris, Maz, and Justin take their horn solos. Finally, Marcelo and JT put the cherry on top with a succinct but earth-shaking drums-and-percussion feature. Marcelo starts out on his hand drums (bongos & timbau) before moving to his elaborate rig of cowbells, cymbal stacks, and small drums.
What About Me? – After the usual opening, Zach plays a searing solo with lots of ascending and descending perfect fourths. JT switches between a shuffle and a syncopated rock beat, and it’s cool to hear him and Zach playing off of each other. After Michael introduces the band over the synth bass vamp, JT seals the deal with an epic drum solo. The fans cheer wildly as Michael League thanks them for coming. After Snarky Puppy left, Michael Franti & Spearhead took the stage for an unforgettable night of music in support of an important political cause.
One of the great things about Snarky Puppy is its collective flexibility. Each member adapts to unique situations within the set, and as a result the band’s sound always changes from night to night. With less than ninety minutes to play, the Pups hit another home run. All of the solos still maintain a high level of energy and musicality. Is this concert the sped-up “crash course” in Snarky Puppy? I think so. My selected standout tracks would be “Bigly Strictness,” “Sleeper,” “Tio Macaco,” and “What About Me.”
- Michael League (bass & krakebs)
- Bob Reynolds (tenor sax)
- Chris Bullock (tenor sax, soprano sax, & flute)
- Mike “Maz” Maher (trumpet & flugelhorn)
- Justin Stanton (keyboards, trumpet, & flugelhorn)
- Mark Lettieri (guitar)
- Zach Brock (violin)
- Bobby Sparks (keyboards)
- Marcelo Woloski (percussion)
- Jason “JT” Thomas (drums)
- 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.