After a dynamic performance in Nantes, Snarky Puppy moved on to Toulouse for another great show at Le Zenith. This show contains lots of great tunes from the SP repertoire: there are oldies like “Intelligent Design” and “Flood” grouped with newer tunes such as “Bigly Strictness” and “Chonks.” Becca Stevens & Michelle Willis opened the concert. A bonus video will be linked at the end of this review.
Beep Box – The concert begins with a sinister synth bassline from Michael League. The keyboardists add spacey melodic fills, and Zach Brock makes his violin strings tremble. Chris McQueen (on guitar) and Chris Bullock (on bass flute) play the melody together before trading it off to Shaun Martin on piano. Jason “JT” Thomas plays some soft stick clicks on beats 2 & 4 before laying down the haunting tom-driven jungle beat. Listen closely, and you might hear Keita Ogawa playing brushes in time with JT. Mike “Maz” Maher uses a muted trumpet to harmonize with the melody. Bullock switches to the C flute and handles the upper octave above Zach’s violin. The bridge arrives, and things get very quiet and suspenseful. Then all hell breaks loose as Justin Stanton unleashes some insane Prophet synth chords. JT cracks on the snare, Shaun pounds the keys, and McQueen comps tastefully. Bobby Sparks emerges with some staccato Minimoog fills played behind the beat. Bullock handles the flute melody before Maz takes the first solo on trumpet. Maz’s bright, resonant tone cuts clear through the mix. As usual, he delivers a stunning showcase of lyricism and technique, building from simple melodic phrases up to blazing runs. Finally, the band plays the outro and the crowd goes wild!
Embossed – JT and Keita nail the opening tandem percussion groove. Chris McQueen plays the first verse on slide guitar, backed by Bobby’s Hammond B-3 organ and the percussionists’ backbeat. Then the violin/horn section joins in with three-part harmonies for the second verse. Bobby and Shaun milk it on their Moogs over the chorus. I think Justin is doubling Michael’s bassline on the Prophet. During the third verse, Bullock and Maz improvise a bit before approaching the solo vamp. Here, Bobby switches to the Hohner clavinet for some funky wah-effected comping. Next, McQueen goes to town with a heavily distorted solo. There’s something about the guitar tone that stands out to my ear: it sounds scratchy, but the pitches are all still really clearly defined. The outro hits and Bullock adds his C flute to Shaun & Bobby’s Moog antics.
Intelligent Design – I’ll go on record and say that this is one of my favorite Snarky Puppy tunes! The offbeat synth chords, the “less-is-more” melody, and the off-kilter drum beat make this tune really special to me. Justin handles the synth chords and Bobby doubles the violin/horn section’s melody. After the first two verses, Chris Bullock howls on tenor sax. He makes use of a repeated chromatic motif between four pitches – D, D#, and E (E, F, & F# in B-flat transposition) – before dropping lower and staying in pentatonic territory. But of course, he breaks free and goes bananas with some impeccable ascending and descending chromatic runs. Then things die down momentarily before the second solo vamp. Zach Brock steps up and churns out a beautiful violin solo that gradually gets nastier by the minute. When a violin is in the hands of an expert musician like Mr. Brock, it’s incredibly versatile and even visceral. JT adds the finishing touches with an offbeat solo. Literally…he plays the ride cymbal, snare, and kick drum on the offbeats for about thirty seconds before getting kooky with a brief half-time groove. Then he blasts away on the toms, snare, and stacks before the violin/horn section resumes the melody and brings the tune to a chaotic end.
Bigly Strictness – Chris McQueen plays the opening with JT’s deep backbeat and Keita’s metallic crashes. Next, the violin/horn section comes on strong with the melody. Chris Bullock whips out the octave-pedal for his tenor sax. Shaun handles the marimba-like Mellotron chords while Bobby adds color with his organ. Solo 1: Justin gets trippy with the Prophet synth. To me, the cutoff frequency filter sounds like it was adjusted for a more compressed, pinched sound. It’s a concise solo with plenty of fun and funky ideas. Keita adds some nice touches with the cowbells, tambourine, stacks, and bongos. Solo 2: McQueen turns the heat up with a supercharged guitar solo. It’s very bluesy, raw, and energetic…the notes fly past at light speed! Then the band takes it down a notch and the violin/horn section plays the final melody. JT’s excellent drumming and Keita’s precise djembe hits are wonderful to listen to. Solo 3: Bobby puts the pedal to the metal on his Hohner clavinet. He dials up the wah & distortion effects for a solo that sounds eerily similar to McQueen’s powerhouse spotlight. Bobby really shreds as the tune wraps up. Michael welcomes the ecstatic French crowd, and talks about the Immigrance tour – and the delicious French catering (definitely a perk of touring abroad) – before introducing an older song from Culcha Vulcha.
Tarova – A very funky and tight version! Justin delivers the pitch-bent synth chords while Michael lays down the head-bobbing bassline (on bass guitar or synth? I’m not entirely sure). Keita smashes the metallic stacks and JT provides a gut-busting kick drum pattern. Then Bobby and Shaun have a brilliant linear musical conversation on the organ and Moog talkbox. My favorite parts of it are some extremely rapid one-note rhythms (thirty-second notes?!) from 1:43-1:55…WOW! When the first verse begins, the violin/horn section tackles it head-on. During the solo vamp, Shaun attacks the talkbox with what I call “calculated abandon.” In all the “Tarova” recordings I’ve previously heard, either a horn player or guitarist has usually soloed so this is a nice breath of fresh air. And obviously, Shaun slashes it to pieces. It’s full of pitch bend, crazy melodic passages, and one amazing long note at the end. After the recap, the band stops dead in its tracks…and Keita takes a long percussion solo! He absolutely schools the crowd with some insane polyrhythmic fills on his ethnic drums. I hear a bass pandeiro, timbale, and a pair of bongos – one tuned very low, and the other cranked up very high. Michael cues the final recap and the tune ends with a clavinet chord from Bobby Sparks. The audience goes completely nuts.
Flood – The new “yacht rock” arrangement, if you will. Chris McQueen plays a clean, classically-influenced intro before cooking up a choppy rhythm that sets up the tune. JT propels the band with a consistent straight-eighths backbeat. The violin/horn section sings the melody twice. Maybe Justin is playing the trumpet with them because I’m not hearing very much of the Fender Rhodes or Prophet synthesizer. Bobby and Shaun add some sweet melodic fills on the organ and piano. Then the slow transition comes next, with McQueen’s guitar and Michael’s bass complementing one another smoothly. After a recap of the melody, Zach delivers a violin solo in 7/4 meter and really wails! He builds slowly from simplistic licks to flaming sextuplet runs…nothing short of extraordinary! Next, the horns and keys simmer while JT plays a nimble drum solo over the changes. McQueen keeps the guitar ostinatos steady through the final shout-chorus and the unison bursts from the violin/horn section. The last chord gets held for ages.
Bad Kids to the Back – A standard version of this now-legendary Snarky Puppy tune. JT, Michael, and Keita lock into a banging groove while Bobby, Shaun, and McQueen comp in their inimitable styles. Zach switches between doubling with the horns and the guitar. Next, Maz ramps up the energy with a trumpet solo full of piercing high notes and outrageous chromatic fills. He spices things up further with a wah-effect midway through his solo! JT thrashes his kit, adding some extra horsepower to the final part of the solo. After the guitar/violin dual melody and the horns’ recap, JT lays down a solid shuffle groove before crushing his third drum solo of the night. As I said in the Birmingham concert review from September 21, JT is like the Energizer Bunny…he just keeps going, and there’s no stopping him. After a jarring avalanche of drum rolls and cymbal crashes, the outro proceeds as normal. As the audience roars, Michael introduces JT and Maz.
Ready Wednesday – Michael takes a bass solo before the keyboardists layer in. It’s syncopated, angular, and funky – definitely the most notable characteristics of Michael’s unique style! Then Justin adds some offbeat chordal stabs on the Fender Rhodes (teasing “Ready Wednesday”), JT adds a driving house beat, and Bobby comps on the clavinet. Chris McQueen strums his heart out, Shaun teases “Quartermaster” on the piano and Moog, and the Pups settle into a D minor groove. Justin plays the opening chords of Bill Laurance’s classic track, launching the band full steam ahead. Zach, Maz, and Chris Bullock play the melody over the rhythm section’s tight-as-balls groove. Then Bullock toots his horn with the same intensity and wide range heard on “Intelligent Design.” It’s another fantastic solo with bold note choices, scale-based licks, and jagged rhythms. Finally, the band hits the outro where things get mellow and reflective. Justin tucks everyone in with a lovely Rhodes outro. As the final notes fade away, Michael thanks the fans and says goodnight. After a quick break, Michael talks about the GroundUP Music Festival and introduces the band & crew members.
Chonks – The first encore begins with JT’s snappy drum fill and the clavinet/talkbox dream team. The violin/horn section also puts their own bright, soulful spin on the melody. Shaun dominates the talkbox for a second time…game, set, and match. He begins with some funky melodies before bending notes like nobody’s business. Then he throws in a fantastic reference to Parliament’s “Flashlight.” Later, he quotes Yarbrough & Peoples’s “Don’t Stop the Music.” GEEZ! If Jake wasn’t the mayor of Funk City, Shaun would definitely be holding that position! Afterwards, the Pups recap the melody and move to the C-sharp minor section. Then Bobby goes off on the clavinet despite some technical issues (the clav’s sound keeps going in and out periodically). But he stretches so much that the band keeps repeating the final vamp. This version lasts nearly twelve minutes! After a huge cheer, Michael says “Merci Toulouse,” and the band leaves. But the fans won’t let it go, and they demand another tune. So…
Lingus – Snarky Puppy delivers a second encore for the impassioned fans. Shaun yells, “If you want another one, scream REAL loud! AAAAHHHH!” The result: a tremendous roar from the crowd. When Justin starts the Rhodes chords, the fans go even crazier and Shaun says, “You wanted it, and you got it!” The rhythm section’s groove moves along comfortably, and the violin/horn section nails the melody. The second time around, the fans sing part of the melody by themselves! The keyboard pattern remains, but every other instrument drops out. WHOA! During the pre-solo vamp, Bullock and Maz trade fours before playing the melody one last time. When the rumba-clave vamp begins, Chris McQueen makes light work of the solo. Yes, we’ve got a rare guitar solo on “Lingus.” It’s a funky Texas-boogie extravaganza with tons of pitch-bent chords, whammy-bar action, and rapid pentatonic & chromatic fills. Then he switches on the wah-effect and goes all out. McQueen trades with the violin/horn section over the outro, and Shaun hypes the crowd during the closing bars. As the final chord comes crashing through the speakers, Michael introduces the band one last time before saying goodnight in French: “Bonsoir!” I love how Michael takes so many opportunities to address the crowd in their native language…it shows deep respect for the country that the band is performing in.
In this show, there are a bunch of tunes with uncommon instrument solos: a violin solo on “Flood,” a talkbox solo on “Tarova,” and a guitar solo on “Lingus.” Expect the unexpected with Snarky Puppy…they can pull off nearly anything with their music! By the way, if you’re a fan of Chris McQueen, do yourself a favor and buy this show! He has FOUR solos in this show and he kills each one. Jason “JT” Thomas also has three epic solos that are not to be missed. My selected standout tracks would be “Embossed,” “Intelligent Design,” “Tarova,” “Bad Kids to the Back,” “Ready Wednesday,” and “Lingus.”
Here’s a fan video of “Tarova,” featuring Shaun Martin and Keita Ogawa’s solos!
- 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
- Michael Harrison – engineering and sound (front of house)
- Matt Recchia – monitors
- Neil Macintosh- mixing