Snarky Puppy Concert Review: Nantes, France, November 18, 2019

France…home of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Tour de France, and some of the most ardent Snarky Puppy fans ever! After seven intense months of touring, the boys traveled to France to begin the final twelve shows of the Immigrance tour.  They would also make stops in Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Germany, including an unforgettable finale in Nuremberg (to be reviewed in an upcoming article).  Chris McQueen returned to the band as the guitarist when Mark Lettieri left after the show in Glasgow.  This concert, held at Le Zénith Métropole Nantes, features a fantastic setlist, an energetic crowd, and a rare performance of “Alma” which made its debut on 2007’s The World Is Getting Smaller! There’s also a high-octane performance of “GØ,” which is one of my all-time favorite Snarky tunes.  Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis opened for Snarky Puppy.     

Track-By-Track

Alma – Justin Stanton opens the show with a short intro on the Fender Rhodes.  Chris McQueen comes in with some resonant guitar arpeggios, and Michael League adds some melodic bass fills.  After some soft cymbal rolls, Jason “JT” Thomas counts off, cuing Shaun Martin and Bobby Sparks to add offbeat chordal stabs on the keyboards.  The rhythm section locks into JT’s swung, syncopated backbeat.  Then the violin/horn section of Zach Brock, Chris Bullock, and Mike “Maz” Maher delivers the first melody.  This song grooves HARD – and given that they’re playing a Brazilian partido alto groove, that’s no small feat! After the horn chorus and the pre-solo transition (featuring some tight, funky chopping from McQueen), the band lowers the volume and Justin takes the first solo on Prophet synthesizer.  He dials up a square-wave lead patch and, after some concise melodic phrases, he attacks the keys with fervor! Justin goes all in with some blinding sixteenth-note chromatic runs and freaky pitch bending before handing the reins to master percussionist Keita Ogawa.  As Chris McQueen lays down a nifty guitar ostinato in E-minor, Keita cranks out a wonderfully catchy solo on his timbale…it sounds like he’s mimicking the sound of a Brazilian repinique.  He throws more “ingredients” into the stew including his detuned bongos and djembe.  Eventually, Michael and JT join in with a groove centered around beats 2 and 4 of each measure.  The horns, violin, and keyboards slowly layer in before hitting the final chorus and outro together.  Bobby’s Hammond B-3 organ lingers during the fade-out.    

While We’re Young – After Michael and JT set up the groove, Bobby fires up the Hohner D6 clavinet.  The horn section plays the first verse, with intermittent fills from Bobby, before McQueen and Zach handle the two-part lead on slide guitar and violin.  After the chorus, the solo vamp arrives and Zach solos.  He begins with a sparse, melancholy melodic figure and as usual, he builds up the intensity and speed of the solo.  There’s plenty of minor blues riffs, rapid slides, and insane tremolos.  Bobby adds a three-tone pattern on the organ.  When the solo wraps up, the horn section plays the shout-chorus and McQueen adds the slide guitar countermelody.  The Pups end with a long fade-out into the next tune.    

GØ – Jason “JT” Thomas launches into a beastly drum solo without pausing after “While We’re Young.” He warms everyone up with a two-minute drum clinic featuring lots of tons of drum rolls, heavy kicks, and dark cymbal crashes.  I don’t think I’ve given credit to Snarky Puppy drum tech Mason Davis for his work, but MAN these drums sound unbelievably good! They’re tuned to the right tension & frequency so that they actually resonate and blend together.  The drums are alive and kicking serious butt! After JT lays down the afoxê beat, Chris McQueen delivers the opening melody and the violin/horn section adds backing harmonies.  Then Shaun and Bobby turn up the heat with some outrageously funky Moog & clavinet accompaniment.  Michael’s bass line holds everything together like glue on a collage.  The violin/horn section plays the second melody before trading with McQueen’s guitar.  Next, Chris Bullock takes a tenor saxophone solo.  It’s raw, angular, fierce, and dynamic – everything I love about Bullock’s sound! And there’s altissimo for DAYS.  I noticed that the trumpets play their line slightly ahead of the rest of the band as the sax solo concludes.  Then, the band moves to the second solo vamp in C-minor.  Bobby and Michael cook up a toe-tapping bass line, and Keita contributes some solid shaker and cymbal-stack hits.  He could be using some caxixis as shakers, which wouldn’t surprise me.  Here, Maz takes a rare muted-trumpet solo and absolutely crushes it.  When I first listened to this part, it made me stop what I was doing and I listened back to it three more times.  Maz’s control over the instrument is unmatched.  The melodic lines are so well-executed, and he doesn’t waste a single damn note.  And it’s important to remember that every solo is IMPROVISED! It’s simply exceptional.  This is a solo that Dizzy Gillespie or Randy Brecker would be proud of.  After a recap of the first melody, McQueen solos over the outro.  It’s brief, but he gets in a lot of hot takes and shows off his fantastic guitar technique.  This cat knows how to rock out! Then the Pups do another fade-out and the audience applauds enthusiastically.   

Bad Kids to the Back – JT, Bobby, and Michael kick things off in style.  The groove simmers for a while before the violin/horn section (including Justin?) plays the melody.  Keita slaps the congas, and McQueen strums a funky wah-wah pattern.  When the solo vamp begins, Shaun takes a rare vocoder solo! Unfortunately it’s a bit low in the mix, and the drums and bass cover it up from time to time.  But from what I hear, it’s a great solo with plenty of dexterous fills and trademark riffs that only Shaun could pull off.  Zach and McQueen play the dual-lead once again.  Finally, JT brings it home with another behemoth of a drum solo.  Michael greets the crowd in French and welcomes them to the concert.  He also thanks Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis for opening the show, and briefly introduces Justin Stanton, composer of “Bad Kids” and the following tune…    

Gemini – That’s right, folks! It’s a Justin Stanton double-header! Michael plucks out the funky bass line, and JT whips up a firmly grounded backbeat.  Maz and Michael’s vocal melody blends well with Chris McQueen’s guitar and Bobby’s organ.  During the free-form vamp, Justin improvises on the Fender Rhodes.  He creates some dark, heavy melodic phrases that weave in and out of the eerie musical atmosphere.  Meanwhile, everybody takes turns adding trippy, warbling, sustained effects on their instruments.  To my ears, it sounds like the music you’d hear in a funky haunted house.  (Maybe it’s haunted by the ghosts of James Brown and Miles Davis…) Once the band escapes from the vamp, Bobby Sparks wails on the organ for over three minutes.  It’s full of powerful melodic lines, dazzling pentatonic & chromatic runs, and billowing swells…but most importantly, it’s full of heart! Bobby transforms the whole venue into a church with his soulful, gospel-influenced performance.  The outro proceeds with only vocals and keyboards, and the fans cheer loudly at the end.   

Chonks – JT, Shaun, and Bobby ignite with their drums/keys combo.  Shaun goes off on the Moog talkbox and the horns back him up with all they’ve got.  The Snarky Horns are so reliable that if I had to do a trust fall, I’d put my faith in them without hesitation.  Chris McQueen’s guitar and Bobby’s distorted wah-clavinet are palpably groovy and funky – they add extra levels of swag to this already swagged-out track.  After the chorus and bridge to the solo vamp, Chris Bullock takes charge with the tenor sax.  Once again, he delivers a mind-blowing solo with tons of jazzy embellishments and rapid ascending & descending runs.  After the recap and transition to the C-sharp minor outro vamp, Bobby flips out on the clavinet.  He serves up a ton of bent notes, wild distorted runs, and pentatonic blues licks…essentially, he comes just short of destroying his instrument like Pete Townshend of the Who.    

Tio Macaco – Keita Ogawa plays a short hand drum intro on his congas.  Chris Bullock plays some trills and harmonics on the bass flute, and teases the opening melody before taking off.  Michael League plays the Moroccan krakebs (metal castanets), perhaps in an effort to represent the tight jingly sound of a Brazilian pandeiro.  JT maintains a steady baião backbeat on his tom-toms and kick drum.  Maz, Justin, and Zach join Bullock for the second verse.  Shaun gets the crowd to chant “HEY” just before the keys and bass come in for the solo vamp.  Bullock slays it on the C flute, and Maz and Justin really whip their trumpets into a frenzy.  Three short but sweet horn solos from these guys.  Next, Keita and JT commence a drums & percussion duet, and Michael sticks around to play both bass guitar and Moog synth bass.  For nearly four minutes, JT and Keita slam it down with power and finesse.  They shift effortlessly from a house beat to a cowbell-and-cymbal-driven samba groove, and then to an earth-shaking hand drums-and-drum set showdown.  The colors on both of their kits are stunning.  Words really don’t do it justice.  After the final unison rhythmic outro, the crowd roars and Michael introduces Keita and JT.      

Sleeper – ***Spoiler alert*** Shaun plays it straight through.  No antics, no crazed hyping, no extended monologue in the middle solo spot.  Just pure, blissful music.  Justin revs up the Rhodes and Prophet, while the violin/horn section sings with Shaun’s emotional talkbox lead.  Chris McQueen channels his inner percussionist with some choppy rhythms, Michael adds some “oomph” with the Moog bass, and Bobby simply does his thing on the organ.  Then Michael introduces the band and crew over Justin’s quiet Rhodes vamp.  After a reflective moment to let everyone bask in the moment (or just to let the band catch their breath), Shaun leads right into the outro.  It does not disappoint, either – but then again, when has “Sleeper” EVER been a letdown? Shaun goes HAM on the Moog and melts more than a few faces with his synth wizardry.  After Shaun milks the last note, Michael says goodnight to the ecstatic French audience.    

Xavi (Encore) – Michael talks briefly about the Immigrance tour and teaches the 4:3 polyrhythm clapping lesson.  After the violin/horn intro, JT, Keita, and Michael set up the Moroccan groove and Chris Bullock plays the flute melody over it.  Bobby, Shaun, and McQueen join in on their axes.  Then Bullock, Maz, and Zach tackle the melody in unison.  Bobby switches from a distorted clavinet effect to a wah-effect.  Perhaps this inspires Zach Brock, who implements the wah for his violin during the first solo vamp.  He builds his solo up from long, drawn-out tones to a madcap shredfest.  Shaun follows with a very short Moog solo over the next solo vamp, which I now call the “minus one vamp” due to the lack of a strong downbeat.  I almost thought Bobby was soloing, but I heard the clavinet still going in the background and realized that Shaun was in the limelight.  This time, Shaun lets himself go: he harmonizes with the bassline, unleashes a wild flurry of notes, and goes bonkers with the modulation, pitch bend, and frequency filters.  After the audience claps the polyrhythm to Keita’s conga pattern and Bullock’s solo flute melody,  Justin puts a bow on it with a typically outstanding Rhodes solo.  He plays at a frantic pace right off the bat, leaving little to no room for pause.  But that’s what draws this listener in: Justin instantaneously conjures up a musical typhoon full of ingenious reharmonization, jaunty rhythms, and blazing bebop-soaked melodic passages.  (If that isn’t the most verbose metaphorical sentence I’ve ever written in my life, I don’t know what is!) Finally, Snarky Puppy arrives at the outro and manages to pull it off.  McQueen fills on the final chord, JT smacks the daylights out of his kit, and the synthesizers take off for outer space.  As the crowd cheers, Michael says “Merci” one last time before the band leaves the stage.   

My highlight of the night is Maz’s trumpet solo on “GØ.” It’s an inspirational showcase of his astonishing technique and vast jazz vocabulary.  That being said, there are plenty of other highlights: Bobby’s dominating “Gemini” solo, the heart-pounding “Tio Macaco” percussion duet, and Justin’s spellbinding keyboard solos are all wonderful in their own ways.  This is a show where the music speaks for itself, with less emphasis on humor or crowd hyping.  If you want to hear a great show with a diverse set list and a receptive audience, buy this show and give it a listen! It’s only available on livesnarky.com.  My selected standout tracks would be “Alma,” “GØ,” “Gemini,” “Chonks,” “Tio Macaco,” and “Xavi.”

Personnel

  • Zach Brock – violin
  • 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
  • Chris McQueen – 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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