Snarky Puppy Concert Review: Manchester, UK, November 15, 2019

How do you follow up a magnificent, career-defining, Grammy-winning concert at the Royal Albert Hall? If your band is like most other bands, you’d go and take a couple of days off, maybe go sightseeing in London and hit up some English pubs.  True to form (and not to rest on their laurels), Snarky Puppy soldiered on with a high-energy concert at the O2 Apollo in Manchester – their first time at the venue in over two years.  It’s rare to see them perform with more than nine members onstage, and in this show there were eleven! The full instrumentation includes three horns, three keyboards, electric guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and violin.  This beefs up the band’s sound tremendously.  The amazing Becca Stevens opened for Snarky Puppy.    

Track-By-Track

Kite – Mike “Maz” Maher takes the lead with his trumpet, and the saxophone tag-team of Bob Reynolds and Chris Bullock backs him up.  Justin Stanton plays the chords on his Fender Rhodes, and Michael League lays down a bass line that’s unobtrusive but solid.  Mark Lettieri delivers a clean guitar ostinato, Bobby Sparks adds some swirling organ, and Shaun Martin doubles the melody on his vocoder.  The first two verses and bridge proceed smoothly.  Then Chris takes the first solo of the night, with all the great tricks you’ve come to expect from him.  There’s chromatic runs, syncopated rhythmic patterns, and passages in the extreme upper & lower registers of the tenor saxophone.  After the brief horn/keys interlude, Justin emotes on the Fender Rhodes.  He creates a well-paced solo full of insane melodic fills, brilliant reharmonization, and even some hemiola rhythms! A lovely version overall.   

Chrysalis – Jason “JT” Thomas sets up the jagged, funky drum beat and Bobby uses the wah-pedal on his clavinet.  Mark and Justin double the first melody on guitar and synthesizer, respectively.  Michael keeps the bass rooted and Shaun messes with the Moog bass.  Next, the horn section arrives with the second melody, with Zach Brock joining in with his violin.  The band transitions to the B-flat major hip-hop chorus.  Bob Reynolds takes the solo on his own composition, and nails it! The notes are constantly moving, and Bob rarely takes more than a second to breathe in between his ideas.  Somehow, the solo still remains lyrical and amazing even with its rapid, nearly frantic pace.  The final chorus and outro go smoothly, led by JT’s driving backbeat and Bobby’s funky clavinet.  This version clocks in at just under six minutes.  

Semente – Keita Ogawa gets a two-minute spotlight and really attacks his cowbells, detuned bongos, and jingled drums.  He does some especially crazy pitch-bending on the low-pitched bongo with his drumsticks.  When the tune begins, Chris Bullock nails the solo flute melody over JT’s baiao beat, and the entire horn section sings with him moments later.  I can hear Bobby and Shaun handling organ and piano, but I’m not sure if Justin is playing trumpet or Rhodes here.  Mark adds some wonderful counterlines between the horns’ melody, and then there’s a great call-and-response between Chris/Zach and Bob/Maz/Mark.  After the second verse, Chris gets another solo flute melody.  Then Shaun delivers a remarkable piano solo full of amazing melodic riffs, groovy rhythms, and thundering octave-based passages.  He stretches out and gets a huge ovation from the crowd! JT and Keita play the short drums/percussion break, and the Pups hit the final recap and outro.  Mark plays a repeating motif, and Bobby adds a 2-3 clave rhythm on the organ as the music fades.  

While We’re Young – This is a pretty standard rendition.  Michael and JT cook up a steady groove, and Bobby wails over it on the clavinet.  The horn section backs up Bobby before Mark & Zach tackle the dual lead.  Either Justin or Shaun adds a lush synth patch to the mix (it could be a Mellotron, perhaps).  Then Bobby steps up with a dirty, powerful, lengthy clavinet solo.  He really goes to town with distortion, pitch-bending, and wild chromatic runs before the shout-chorus and outro come along.  Mark briefly takes center stage with a brilliant slide guitar performance.     

Chonks – JT rolls on his drums and cymbals for a few seconds before knocking out the famed snare drum intro.  Shaun and Bobby elevate the funk levels with their unrivaled talkbox/clavinet combo.  Michael (on bass), Justin (on Prophet synth) and Bobby (on clavinet) provide a healthy bass line as Shaun sings on the talkbox.  Chris, Bob, Maz, and Zach provide harmonies on their axes, and Mark plays some percussive, choppy comping.  For the first solo, Mark gets down with his bad self and explores some heavy pentatonic territory.  Moments later, he quotes a circus theme to the audience’s amusement (3:57-4:02).  The following verses go off without a hitch, and then the band transitions to the C-sharp minor “heavy rock” solo vamp.  And then Zach Brock goes nuts with a brief but electrifying blues violin solo! The wah-effect, the blues-inspired licks, the unhinged tremolo…it’s a solo worthy of the late blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn or jazz violin legends like Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty.  After Zach’s final note swallows everything up, the audience roars and Michael welcomes the fans.  He thanks Becca Stevens for opening and talks about the Immigrance album.  

Bad Kids to the Back – JT, Michael, and Bobby turn the “swag” meter up to 11! The horns/violin section delivers the first verse with boldness and precision before Mark and Bobby get some time together.  Maz cooks with gas and plays a scorching trumpet solo that explores the entire range of the instrument.  It’s linear, punchy, and lyrical all at once.  After he wraps it up, Mark and Zach tackle the dual lead before the horns take the band to the final solo vamp where Jason “JT” Thomas goes crazy with his drum solo.  JT messes with the time by playing the kick & snare on the upbeats before shuffling on the drum set and unleashing a deluge of drum rolls and cymbal crashes.  The tune concludes, and Michael introduces Maz and JT to the cheering fans.    

Thing of Gold – Justin plays an enchanting intro on Fender Rhodes.  The song’s tempo starts off rather brisk, but eventually it gets dialed back.  Chris Bullock plays the melody on tenor sax, with accompaniment from Mark, JT, Justin, and Keita.  No bass, violin, or horns just yet! Shaun directs the crowd to sing the melody, and then everyone hops into the pool for a grand old time.  During the E-flat minor solo vamp, Bob takes his time on tenor sax and he leaves more space between the notes.  It’s another great showcase of Bob’s incredible tone, vast jazz knowledge, and unparalleled instrumental technique.  Chris and Maz play the melody from Yarbrough and Peoples’s hit “Don’t Stop the Music” in the background…what a nice touch! After the bridge, Shaun closes it out on Moog in style.  Once again, he hits a grand slam (as he ALWAYS does on this tune) with loads of modulation, pitch-bending, and lightning-quick melodic ideas.  Towards the end, he even accompanies himself! He does this by playing the Moog with his right hand and Fender Rhodes-esque chords with his left hand.  

Ready Wednesday – This tune begins with Bobby on clavinet and Shaun (or maybe Justin) on Rhodes.  JT and Keita set up a firm rhythmic foundation on drum set and congas while Mark strums a funky pattern.  Michael’s bass line sounds a bit stripped down compared to what I’ve heard in past versions of this track.  The horns/violin section sings the melody loud and proud, while Bobby tries to upstage them with some downright nasty clavinet plunking.  When the solo vamp approaches, Zach takes the listeners down South with his fiddling prowess.  Finally, the keyboardists slowly bring it home during the pensive outro.  Michael League thanks the Manchester audience, and Snarky Puppy exits amidst a booming ovation.  After a brief break, Michael gives a shout-out to the band’s manager Mike Chadwick and production manager Rosanna Freedman, both Manchester residents.  Neil MacIntosh (the concert mixing engineer) also gets another chant in his honor, to Michael’s delight.  Then the band introductions follow, with Michael saving Bob Reynolds for last.  This is Bob’s final show with the Pups before leaving the tour – and of course, he gets a HUGE ovation.  FInally, Michael gives a birthday shout-out to the front-of-house sound engineer Mike Harrison, prompting Bobby to play an impromptu clavinet rendition of “Happy Birthday.” 

What About Me? (Encore) – As the encore begins, Shaun shouts “Manchester, y’all wanna party tonight or what?” and the crowd cheers loudly.  The slowed opening chugs along at a comfortable speed, and Shaun plays hypemaster, yelling at the fans to clap their hands.  The horns/violin melody is on point, the keyboards add special layers of sound to the tune, and the guitar comping is gritty and tight.  Then Bobby takes charge with his second clavinet solo of the night.  He begins with a staccato rhythmic figure before unloading and shredding like a madman.  It’s fast and furious enough to make Vin Diesel jealous.  JT lays down a stuttering, propulsive drum beat behind him.  He drops out briefly, leaving Bobby and the guitars alone together, before adding some kicks and jumping back on board.  Welcome to Funkytown, ladies & gentlemen.  Finally, the bass solo vamp starts and JT drives the bus home with an unbelievable drum solo.  After the outro, the audience lets out a tremendous round of applause and Michael says farewell. 

As with most Snarky Puppy shows, you never know what awesome surprises are in store.  This is no exception.  A good set list, balancing Snarky standards with new Immigrance tunes.  Zach Brock’s fiery solo on “Chonks” and Bobby Sparks’s rampage on “What About Me” are easily my personal highlights.  My only complaint is that the show feels a little bit short – it clocks in at just over ninety minutes with crowd applause and Michael’s remarks.  I think that the band could have done another tune, perhaps “Xavi” or a classic track like “Shofukan” or “Lingus.” But overall, this fantastic concert shows a tight band in top form even after a staggering seven months on tour.  My selected standout tracks from this show would be “Semente,” “Chonks,” “Bad Kids to the Back,” “Thing of Gold,” and “What About Me.”

Personnel

  • Zach Brock – violin
  • Bob Reynolds – saxophone
  • Chris Bullock – tenor sax, flute, and alto flute
  • Mike “Maz” Maher – trumpet and flugelhorn
  • Justin Stanton – trumpet and keyboards
  • Shaun Martin – keyboards
  • Bobby Sparks – keyboards
  • Mark Lettieri – guitar
  • Michael League – bass
  • Jason “JT” Thomas – drums
  • Keita Ogawa – percussion

Sound Crew:

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

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