Click here for photos from this show in the QRO Concert Photo Gallery
Click here for photos of Snarky Puppy at 2022 Sweetwater 420 in Atlanta, GA in the QRO Concert Photo Gallery
Click here for photos of Snarky Puppy at 2017 High Sierra in Quincy, CA in the QRO Concert Photo Gallery
Snarky Puppy brought their five-time Grammy winning contemporary jazz music to a sold out Friday night show at Atlanta’s newest venue, The Eastern, on April 28th. Snarky Puppy bandleader Michael League introduced Mama Soul to the crowd, who sang fast hip hop with frantic, continuous lyrics, mixing styles from beat style poetry and spoken word, conveying heartfelt emotion. Then, Jamal Ahmed from Atlanta’s jazz station WCLK introduced Snarky Puppy. WCLK is the radio station of Clark Atlanta University, known as a Historically Black College and University.
The house lights went down and the diverse crowd (including some children) cheered in anticipation of the band. There was no grand entrance for the nine talented musicians. They casually walked on stage and politely waved at the audience. Projected above the stage was the cover art from last year’s live album Empire Central, an outline of Dallas, Texas skyscrapers that changed colors and danced throughout the night, and there were also animated instrument outlines that popped up and featured live black and white footage of different members soloing. The Dallas skyline image was obviously a tribute to the original home of many of Snarky Puppy’s members who attended North Texas University jazz classes in nearby suburb Denton. Stage lighting colors would change at the opening moments of each song, helping set the mood.
The band went straight into an alternately chill and upbeat new song, “East Bay”, from Empire Central. Saxophone player Chris Bullock took the lead during the opening phrases. Keyboard melodies by Bobby Ray Sparks and Justin Stanton joined the song, then more horns (Bob Reynolds, also on sax, and Mike “Maz” Maher on trumpet) and guitar (Mark Lettieri). Percussion became prominent. There was a trumpet solo by Maher, and the two saxophonists harmonized. Drums and percussion synchronized and for the ending, the horns sustained mellow notes.
Blue stage lighting and a light delicate guitar texture would open the next number, “Broken Arrow”. That gentle guitar and horn exchange of the opening gave way to a building wave of full bodied jazz sound, followed by a calming chill-out bridge, then a second buildup of intricate keyboard textures. Mid-song there was a section of all four horns playing at once, and that got very positive audience feedback.
“Coney Bear” opened with choppy riffs by guitar, bass and percussion, then the horns came with a sound resonance of a bagpipe. The song also included a long intricate keyboard solo by Sparks. Near the end, Bullock played flute instead of sax.
The horns are such an essential to Snarky’s sound, always present but not overwhelming, and the songs on their new album Empire Central only reinforce that trend. This ain’t your daddy’s jazz band or your big brother’s no-wave project, despite the clicking sounds of the drums and percussion. This music has a far more complex, textured and polished delivery.
As the set went on, it became clear the band was deep-diving into their new album with whole-hearted enthusiasm. It was a very satisfying experience to hear a whole set list full of fresh tunes, but of course there were plenty of the Puppy’s live embellishments through solos. Listening to their music is like being lost in the woods: the meandering melodies take you somewhere, then the trail disappears and a whole new instrument takes over. You’re lost in the musical woods, but enjoying the new melody, so just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Bassist Michael League later talked about the Texas shuffle, giving props to some Texas musicians that were good at the Texas shuffle, old and new. He said Snarky Puppy drummer Jason “JT” Thomas is about the best in the world at doing it, and if the audience didn’t know the Texas shuffle, in about three and a half minutes they would. Guitarist Lettieri immediately broke into a smooth guitar-only solo that echoed Townes Van Zandt, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and generations of Lone Star guitarists. “RL’s” built up until a slow-burn Texas jam unfolds, including textures of many other styles, as big and diverse as Texas itself. Stanton had a lengthy trumpet solo, then near the end, Sparks played an interesting keyboard… a whammy bar clavinet!
During songs, the ever-smiling bassist/bandleader League would occasionally turn his body or head to a particular musician to indicate it was their lead/solo. Every one of the nine members got solo moments throughout the set, but League would only play two short solos to share his prowess (his slap bass moment was particularly good).
After a whopping ten songs and 100 minutes of music from their new record, League asked the audience if they liked what they heard, and he got a resounding, roaring confirmation. He finally acknowledged that he and the band wanted to present their new music, not just play familiar songs. To close the set out, the band played the very familiar “Sleeper” then added a space rock ending by Sparks that drove the crowd wild. The band thanked the audience, took a group bow, and left the stage. Of course, the Atlanta crowd was no ordinary audience, so the sold-out crowd remained firmly in place, begging for more.
The band quickly graced the stage again, thanked the audience for their enthusiasm, and delivered some “Lingus” to the audience as an encore. At one point League challenged percussionist Nate Werth to play an extended solo, which seemed like an endurance test, but Werth rose to the occasion, and the audience responded enthusiastically to his energized solo. The whammy clavinet made another appearance.
It’s clear that the Snarky Puppy has grown into a big dog, and its musical bark is as loud as its tongue is wet. We like it here too, guys. Thanks for a wonderful show.
Michael League: Bass
Mark Lettieri: Guitar
Justin Stanton: Keys/Trumpet
Bobby Ray Sparks: Keys
Jason “JT” Thomas: Drums
Nate Werth: Percussion
Chris Bullock: Sax and Windwoods
Bob Reynolds: Sax
Mike “Maz” Maher: Trumpet