Snarky Puppy Concert Review: Toronto, ON, CA – September 7, 2019 (early show)

This is the early show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada – aka Larnell Lewis’s hometown! The first thing that caught my attention was that three Snarky Puppy stalwarts are not in the lineup for this show.  In addition to the absence of Mike “Maz” Maher (who would join the tour two weeks later), Bobby Sparks and Justin Stanton are absent even though they had performed in Montreal the night before.  The void is filled with violinist Zach Brock, trumpeter Jay Jennings, and Bob “The Savior of Toronto” Lanzetti on guitar.  But more on that later… 

Track-By-Track

Even Us – The evening begins with the opening guitar chords.  (Bob Lanzetti and Chris McQueen are the featured guitarists, so it’s hard to tell who’s playing this part.) Shaun Martin plays the melody on the piano and Zach Brock gets a turn as well.  Before the second verse, Michael League plays some high-pitched melodic figures on the bass.  While Zach adds more melodic stylings, Chris Bullock and Jay Jennings contribute some lovely harmonies on their horns.  The beat drops, and Jason “JT” Thomas delivers an offbeat drum groove locking in with Nate Werth’s hand drum patterns.  Chris Bullock takes the first solo and it gets dark very quickly.  He plays an extended solo in A harmonic minor with loads of chromatic runs, jagged rhythms, and several notes in the altissimo range.  After the final chorus, Shaun and the guitarists play the outro alone.  

Semente – the spotlight travels to Nate Werth for a percussion intro.  Nate riffs on the djembe before doing some funky pitch-bending on the bass pandeiro (a low-pitched drum with jingles).  Then he plays some turbo-charged rhythmic patterns on the cowbells, timbales, snare drum, and stacks before cueing the opening of “Semente.” Chris plays the famous flute melody, and Jay & Zach follow his lead.  For some reason, the flute interlude begins with the wrong notes and then it stops completely.  The band seems lost for a couple of seconds, but then the train gets back on the tracks.  Jay blows for a bit – it sounds like the flugelhorn rather than trumpet.  I haven’t heard nearly as many Snarky Puppy live shows with Jay as I have with Maz & Justin, but Jay absolutely crushes it here.  He builds a fiery solo from tiny embers, and his notes are so precise and well-placed.  Michael, JT, Nate, and Shaun lay down a solid foundation.  After the percussion break, Zach and the horns return to the front.  The guitarists add some rhythmic chopping that almost sounds like an uptempo reggae pattern.  The band fades out slowly after the final melodic statement.  

Grown Folks – Shaun adds some clavinet to the opening funk groove.  Lanzetti and McQueen use the wah effect for all it’s worth.  Chris, Jay, and Zach handle the melody again.  After the modulation to the bridge in A-flat minor, the rhythm section plays sparsely.  Nate adds color with his tambourine and crashers.  Zach Brock steps up and hits a home run with a jam-packed solo full of wild tremolo and rapid blues licks.  After spending some time in C-minor, the horns transition to the “shout chorus.”  (I think) Bob Lanzetti injects some insane riffing at the end before the Pups bring the tune to a close.   

GØ – JT opens this Snarky Puppy classic with a dynamic drum solo.  There’s lots of rapid drum rolls and dark splashy cymbal accents, as one would expect from JT at this point.  After JT lays down the afoxê groove, the opening guitar melody shines through and the horns add some rich harmonies.  Then we get the new arrangement with the altered bassline.  This version is good, but it feels a bit weak without Bobby Sparks’ overdriven clavinet.  Nate’s metallic percussion and JT’s propulsive drumming really elevate the intensity, though.  Chris Bullock takes another solo and constructs a scorching solo centered around the note D (which is E in the tenor sax range)! It reminds me of “One Note Samba” for that reason.  Soon he drops the motif and explores the extreme lower and upper ranges of the sax.  Next, the B section arrives and Shaun Martin solos.  He begins with some restrained figures on the Fender Rhodes before adding some Moog synthesizer to the mix.  Then he goes all-out on the Rhodes before the horns come back.  Once the band replays the A section, (I think) Chris McQueen takes a brilliant solo to close the tune.  After a big round of applause, Michael welcomes the audience and makes some funny and self-deprecating remarks about their two-show stand.  Michael mentions that Bobby Sparks flew to France for a gig and Justin Stanton had to go home for a little while, so he texted Bob Lanzetti (“Bob – what’re you doing tomorrow, bro?”) who flew in last-minute to play the gig.  “The Savior of Toronto,” indeed! 

Bad Kids to the Back – Michael dedicates this tune to Justin before counting it off.  JT lays down the filthiest of beats, and the horns nail the intricate melodic figures.  Jay struts his stuff with a bold, swaggering trumpet solo.  It starts off softly and slowly, as if the band were in an after-hours jazz club.  Then it picks up and Jay catches fire! He hits some VERY high notes and executes some blistering runs with ease.  Jay’s technical prowess is not to be overlooked – he’s a really badass trumpeter! After the solo, (I think) Bob plays the guitar melody while Nate lays down a 2-3 clave pattern on the cowbells.  Shaun layers in some Hammond organ as well.  After the horns’ statement, Michael and (I think) Chris McQueen lay down the syncopated bass/guitar line while JT solos.   JT messes with the time before going whole-hog and unleashing a booming barrage of drum rolls and cymbal crashes.  Then the band hits the outro and ends perfectly in sync.  Michael introduces Jay Jennings and JT to the cheering crowd. 

Chonks – This version opens with the guitarists playing Bobby’s wah-clavinet bassline over JT’s rock-steady backbeat.  Shaun turns up the heat with the talkbox, and Zach & the horns jump in later.  Next, the guitarists take equally brilliant solos.  I think Bob takes the first one, and then McQueen solos over the outro vamp.  This version is pretty standard, except for a shortened chorus and coda after the last solo.  

Shofukan – After the opening guitar passage, the horns come in with a tightly performed melody.  Shaun hypes up the crowd right before the chanting part: “It’s Toronto so they already know what time it is!” Then Shaun stretches out for a long keyboard solo.  His jazz chops are on full display here, folks.  Eventually he plays a melodic figure that the entire rhythm section latches onto for a few choruses.  Then there’s a VERY abrupt transition to the guitar arpeggios and the shout chorus.  Shaun leads the crowd in a sing-along over Nate and JT’s heavy groove before Michael directs the crowd to sing in two-part harmony.  It’s a shortened version that honestly isn’t too impressive to my ears.      

Xavi – Michael gives a shout-out to Neil Macintosh (the band’s mixing engineer), introduces the band, and teaches the 4:3 polyrhythm clapping to the audience.   The opening is par for the course – with Bullock’s flute intro, the first verse, and chorus.  Then we get a guitar solo from (I think) Chris McQueen.  Next, Zach Brock takes a violin solo with some gritty wah and phaser effects.  Finally, Shaun brings it home with a great synthesizer solo.  This solo is completely different from the one in “Shofukan” – it’s a wild and frantic showcase with loads of pitch bend, modulation, and chromatic runs.  It’s always interesting to hear somebody else besides Justin Stanton on the last solo in “Xavi”…I guess the Pups decided to experiment a bit more in the final leg of the tour.  Mason Davis (drum tech) joins Michael to play krakebs at the end.  The crowd claps the polyrhythm over the outro and the band ends on a high note.  Michael introduces Mason to the Toronto crowd before saying goodbye — for now: “See you in two hours!”   

This is a good show, but some of it feels a tad sloppy (see “Semente”).  This could be due to the departure of two keyboardists and Bob Lanzetti’s quick arrival.  So it’s possible that the band had to quickly learn different parts for the show.  Michael’s humorous banter makes up for some of the less interesting musical moments.  My selected standout tracks from this show would be “Grown Folks,” “GØ,” “Bad Kids to the Back,” and “Xavi.” 

Personnel

  • Chris Bullock – tenor sax, flute, and alto flute
  • Jay Jennings – trumpet and flugelhorn
  • Zach Brock – violin
  • Shaun Martin – keyboards
  • Chris McQueen – guitar
  • Bob Lanzetti – guitar
  • Michael League – bass
  • Jason ‘JT’ Thomas – drums
  • Nate Werth – percussion

Sound Crew:

  • Matt Recchia – engineering and sound (front of house)
  • Michael Harrison – monitors
  • Neil Macintosh- 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.

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