The last time I wrote for FunkCity.net, I concluded my review by saying that I would love to see Snarky Puppy once venues opened up after the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday April 13, 2023 that wish finally came true. But before we get into that, let’s recap what Snarky Puppy has been up to since the triumphant return of live music…
Snarky Puppy recorded their fourteenth album Empire Central from March 4-10, 2022 at Deep Ellum Art Company in Dallas, Texas. They recorded 16 new tracks for a small in-studio audience, similar to the setup for their albums Tell Your Friends (2010), GroundUP (2012), and We Like It Here (2014). From May-June 2022, they toured as the supporting act for Steely Dan. Next came a string of European festival dates from June-July 2022. Empire Central was released worldwide on September 30, 2022; and the following day, the band embarked on a European tour in support of the new album. On the last day of the successful GroundUp Music Festival in February, Empire Central won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. Then Snarky Puppy commenced their North American Spring tour from March 29 through April 28, 2023.
After playing shows in various cities including Chicago, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Boston, Snarky Puppy arrived in New York City on April 13. It was their first performance at the legendary Beacon Theatre, and they sold out. Truly epic! The opening act was the MAGO Duo consisting of renowned jazz musicians John Medeski on organ and Billy Martin on drums & percussion. Guest musician Steven Bernstein (on slide trumpet) joined midway through the set. Together, the trio delivered an avant-garde musical extravaganza that traversed different styles, meters, and modalities…all while staying true to the roots of blues, funk, and jazz. Their set ran for about forty minutes, followed by a brief intermission.
At exactly 9:04 pm, the lights went down in the packed house. And to my amazement, a whopping thirteen members walked onstage. Normally Snarky Puppy only tours with nine or ten members (out of nineteen in total)…but for this momentous occasion, they pulled out all the stops. Led by bassist Michael League, the lineup boasted a four-man horn section consisting of Chris Bullock & Bob Reynolds on woodwinds and Jay Jennings & Mike “Maz” Maher on trumpets (five counting Justin Stanton who doubles on trumpet and keys). Also present were violinist Zach Brock, guitarists Bob Lanzetti & Mark Lettieri, drummer Jason “JT” Thomas, and percussionist Nate Werth. Three keyboardists rounded out the roster: Justin Stanton, Shaun Martin, and Bobby Ray Sparks II. The result was a magnificent 2-hour set highlighting material from Empire Central. Ten of the twelve tunes came from the new album, with two classics as the set closer and encore.
The evening kicked off with “Keep It On Your Mind,” a bold & funky piece from Michael League. Bob Lanzetti’s piercing guitar riff filled the house, and the horn section joined in with a lush, velvety sound. Then — BOOM! The beat dropped, the bass and keys jumped on the groove bus, and New York City became Funk City. Mike “Maz” Maher took the first solo of the evening on his wah-pedal trumpet. Justin led the band through the bridge with his Fender Rhodes. Then the outro came up, and Bob took a brief but fiery guitar solo over it. After the horns’ chorus and the final synth chords faded out, the NYC crowd gave Snarky Puppy a huge roaring welcome. Chris Bullock’s “East Bay” came next, and Mark took an amazing guitar solo. This tune also featured a fantastic interlude with Nate on percussion and JT on drums.
The band transitioned directly into the slow, simmering backbeat of Justin Stanton’s piece “Broken Arrow.” The horn melody was reminiscent of the one from the band’s megahit “Lingus.” During the solo section, Zach Brock stepped up and whipped up a sensational showcase of his violin technique and jazz vocabulary. This was easily the first “wow” moment of the night. “Jazz violin? Holy shat!” As the song ended, everybody in the balcony rose for a standing ovation. “Bet” followed, and everyone bounced along to the infectious Brazilian-flavored tune. Bob Reynolds delivered an exceptional sax solo (as is the norm), and then guitarists Mark & Bob traded bars in the open B-flat minor vamp before the final chorus. As if that weren’t enough, Shaun Martin tore through the roof with an absolutely unhinged vocoder keyboard solo. After a huge ovation, Michael greeted the audience warmly. He also thanked Medeski, Martin, & Bernstein (MMB?) for opening the show.
The band turned down the flame slightly with Mark Lettieri’s “Trinity,” which was the first single to be released. Already considered a Snarky Puppy standard, this tune has everything: contrasting musical sections, dexterous horn lines, a brilliant guitar ostinato, a rock-solid backbeat, and impeccable percussive touches. Chris Bullock gave the crowd their money’s worth with an extended sax solo. After Justin played the legendary Prophet-6 chord progression, Bob Lanzetti returned for another short guitar solo. Shaun resumed his role as de facto hypemaster, yelling for the crowd to clap their hands. Afterwards, Zach Brock’s “Honiara” took us down a totally different path. This felt like a tune right out of the Frank Zappa playbook, perhaps from the “Hot Rats” era. The odd time signature (⅞ meter?) was a challenge to follow, but it made the tune more interesting! Jay Jennings floored the Beacon audience with an outstanding flugelhorn solo; and Zach followed up with a smoother, more subdued solo than the one on “Broken Arrow.” Then the Pups played “Cliroy,” a derivation of the names of musicians Clifford Brown and Roy Hargrove who were a huge influence on the tune’s composer Jay Jennings. This number had a sleazy, street-vibe that stood apart from most of the other tunes. Justin Stanton stood up from his keyboards and played a mesmerizing trumpet solo.
Next, Bob Lanzetti improvised a guitar intro full of long tones and crunchy “static” noises before launching into “RL’s,” a Texas shuffle inspired by a venue where the band used to hang out in Dallas. Chris Bullock played a swaggering sax solo, and then Bobby Sparks sealed the deal with an intense clavinet solo. One of my only complaints about this show came up during “RL’s”: the sound of the Hohner D6 clavinet kept petering out, and only stabilized towards the end. I also would have been happier if Bobby had at least one more solo either on Hammond organ or Minimoog Model D. Before playing “Belmont,” Michael dedicated it to the band’s mentor, the late Bernard Wright, who was a featured guest on the Empire Central track “Take It!” Tragically, Wright passed away just two months after the recording sessions. Jay’s flugelhorn solo was spacy and poignant. And Shaun’s final piano melody (accompanied by a string-like keyboard drone) brought tears to my eyes. The theater was nearly silent for five seconds…just basking in the emotional impact of the moment.
In true Snarky Puppy fashion, the band followed a ballad with a brash uptempo showstopper, in this case “Pineapple.” Co-written by Michael League and Mike “Maz” Maher, this “new jack swing” number was perhaps the tightest tune of the show. The horn lines flowed effortlessly, the rhythm section locked into the groove, and the keyboard textures blended together like peanut butter and chocolate. Bob Reynolds wailed on his saxophone for the first solo, followed by a super melodic Prophet-6 solo from Justin Stanton. JT brought the house down with a thunderous drum fill to close the number. The audience went nuts and made it clear that they enjoyed the new tunes.
Michael said, “We’ve got an old one for you,” and Justin dove right into the Fender Rhodes intro to one of the band’s most famous tunes, “Sleeper.” It was standard fare for the first half up until the middle vamp. After Michael introduced the band and crew, Shaun Martin gave a heartfelt speech thanking Michael for his work…not without a few obscenities, of course! “It takes a special mother****er to run this sh*t, and he does it effortlessly! STAND UP! Yeah, yeah, yeah! Stand your asses up and show him some love!” Everybody stood up and cheered loudly to show their appreciation for Michael and the entire band. Then Shaun used the Moog talkbox to address the crowd: “New York City…can you scream?!” After repeating this twice, Shaun finally cued the band back into the main melody of the outro and dazzled the fans with some talkbox acrobatics. After one final long note from Shaun, Michael thanked the NYC audience. We all cheered, stamped our feet, and whistled like lunatics as Snarky Puppy exited the stage. I shouted at the top of my lungs, “More! More! Encore!” To our delight, the band returned while Michael gave a shout-out to the band’s record label GroundUP Music and acknowledged their close friends & family members in attendance. The encore was the epic “What About Me?” After the standard opening, Mark Lettieri produced a syncopated, funky solo that evolved into an all-out shredfest! And to close out the night, Jason “JT” Thomas crushed his drum solo to smithereens. Not much else can be said. As the final notes rang through the Beacon Theatre, the audience exploded. It was total madness. Electrifying energy. Sheer bliss. We gave the band their fourth (or fifth?) standing ovation of the night as the band bowed, waved goodbye, and walked offstage for the final time.
Final Thoughts: Eight years ago (July 31, 2015) I attended my first Snarky Puppy show at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. The band featured Michael, Maz, Justin, Chris, Nate, JT, Bob Lanzetti, and the one and only Cory Henry! They did a 75-minute set with lots of tunes from their landmark album We Like It Here, and the highlights of that set were the percussion/drums duet on “Tio Macaco” and Cory’s organ solo on “Lingus.” I was blown away by how tight and powerful their set was. Fast forward to April 13, 2023…as I sat in my central upper balcony seat in the Beacon Theatre, I was reminded of that warm summer evening in Newport when I first entered the church of Snarky Puppy. Even after all this time, the Pups still captivated me and got me to groove, cheer, and smile along with thousands of other enthusiastic fans and music lovers. For me, the only downsides were the MAGO duo (I was getting restless after 20 minutes) and the lack of solos from Bobby Sparks. Honestly, I was also hoping for one or two additional classic songs from the band’s earlier albums. Just two weeks earlier in Milwaukee, Snarky Puppy played “Skate U” for the first time in six years. It would have been nice if NYC had also gotten “Skate U” or another older tune like “Binky,” “Thing of Gold,” or “Tarova.” Even an Immigrance tune like “Chonks” or “While We’re Young” would have sufficed…but beggars can’t be choosers. It was an INCREDIBLE show! The live sound at the Beacon Theatre was exceptional, the lighting show was vibrant, and the chemistry between the band & the audience was unparalleled. This set exceeded my highest expectations and I could not have asked for a better performance from Snarky Puppy. When they come to your city or town in the future, do your best to catch them in concert! Their studio albums and live shows have something for everybody…yes, even for the bad kids in the back.
Michael League – electric bass & Moog synth bass
Chris Bullock – woodwinds (tenor saxophone, flute, piccolo, & bass clarinet)
Bob Reynolds – tenor saxophone
Jay Jennings – trumpet & flugelhorn
Mike “Maz” Maher – trumpet & flugelhorn
Zach Brock – violin
Bob Lanzetti – electric guitar
Mark Lettieri – electric guitar
Justin Stanton – trumpet & keyboards (Fender Rhodes, Nord Stage 2, Sequential Prophet-6, & Minimoog Model D)
Bobby Sparks – keyboards (Hammond B-3 organ, Hohner D6 Castlebar “Whammy” clavinet, & Minimoog Model D)
Shaun Martin – keyboards (Korg Kronos, Mellotron, & Moog Little Phatty talkbox)
Nate Werth – percussion
Jason “JT” Thomas – drums