by Ian Mann
November 13, 2019
Ian Mann enjoys the "energy and precision" of headliners Snarky Puppy, plus an entertaining support slot from guitarist Charlie Hunter and vocalist Lucy Woodward.
Snarky Puppy / Charlie Hunter & Lucy Woodward
O2 Academy, Bristol, 08/11/2019
At last! I’ve finally got to enjoy a live show by Snarky Puppy, the acclaimed international collective led by bassist and composer Michael League.
It had become a source of great regret to me that several years ago I passed up the opportunity of covering the then unknown Snarky Puppy at one of their earliest UK shows at the Hare & Hounds pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
Since then they have become global stars, building an enormous following via the old fashioned virtues of hard work and almost constant gigging. Theirs is a success that, rather like their music, transcends conventional generic descriptions. Like Pat Metheny and e.s.t Snarky Puppy have achieved their superstar status via word of mouth, their exciting stage shows becoming the stuff of legend and holding equal appeal to jazz and rock audiences alike.
They now play leading rock venues and concert halls rather than pubs and the currently ongoing tour in support of current album “Immigrance” has seen them ‘on the road’ for most of the year, from April to the end of November, criss-crossing the globe and playing dates in North America, Australasia, Japan and Europe. This current run of British and Irish shows comes towards the end of the tour, but on the evidence of this performance Snarky Puppy are exhibiting no signs of road weariness. No one could accuse this Dog of being tired.
Snarky Puppy was formed fifteen years ago and “Immigrance” represents the band’s thirteenth album. The majority of tonight’s material was sourced either from the latest album or its immediate predecessor, 2016’s award winning “Culcha Vulcha”. Such has been Snarky Puppy’s success that the band has now started its own GroundUP record label, the choice of name reflecting the hard working, ‘300 gigs a year’ ethic that helped to bring them to this position. They will also be curating their own GroundUP Festival in Mimi Beach, Florida in February 2020, which will feature the Pups alongside many other major jazz names, with leading saxophonist Chris Potter the artist in residence.
CHARLIE HUNTER & LUCY WOODWARD
Before the Snarkys hit the stage we were to enjoy a set from their friends and label mates Charlie Hunter and Lucy Woodward.
Hunter is a virtuoso guitarist who on specialises on seven or eight string models, allowing him to play bass and lead guitar simultaneously. It’s quite a trick. He has been on the scene since the early 1990s and as a bandleader he has recorded prolifically. Hunter’s playing embraces most of the genres that have helped to shape contemporary American music, effortlessly taking in jazz, blues, rock and funk and more. In 2016 I enjoyed a performance by him at Ronnie Scott’s as part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. Hunter was leading a quartet featuring his long term sparring partner Bobby Previte at the drums, the American duo supplemented by two young British horn players, Kieran McLeod (trombone) and Yelfris Valdes (trumpet). The young Brits acquitted themselves well but it was the chemistry between Hunter and Previte that was the defining aspect of an excellent and hugely entertaining and enjoyable performance. My account of this event can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
The Ronnie’s show revealed that Hunter is a musician who likes to have fun, a serious musician who doesn’t take himself too seriously. This was also apparent in his partnership with the vocalist Lucy Woodward as the pair opened tonight’s show performing songs from their recent album “Music!Music!Music!”.
Woodward has released four previous albums and enjoyed a degree of pop success. She has also been part of the all female trio The Goods and has also worked as a jazz big band vocalist. Woodward sang with Snarky Puppy on their first “Family Dinner” album and her 2015 solo release “’Til They Bang On The Door” was co-produced by Michael League. The links between tonight’s two acts are strong, and the Hunter & Woodward set was introduced by the Pups’ top dog.
Hunter and Woodward were joined by Japanese drummer / percussionist Keita Ogawa, a member of the Snarky Puppy collective and who appeared on “Immigrance”.
The title of the Hunter and Woodward album seemed particularly apposite as the pair, plus Ogawa, tackled a collection of songs sourced from a variety of musical genres, but all given a distinctive twist.
Woodward has a soulful and powerful voice and this was immediately evidenced on the bluesy opener “Soul Of A Man”, which also featured Hunter’s virtuoso soloing on (I think) seven string guitar. Hunter played seated and it wasn’t that easy to see him from the ‘mosh pit’, particularly among the forest of keyboards and percussion that was already on the stage ready for the Pups’ appearance.
“My Love Is Like A Mountainside” was an earthy blend of blues and funk, and a song that also contained much water imagery. A cover of the old Terence Trent Darby hit “Wishing Well” increased the funk quotient yet further and included a crowd pleasing scat vocal episode from Hunter.
Woodward encouraged Hunter to indulge in more vocalising as the trio tackled the Nina Simone song “Be My Husband”, which featured a powerful vocal performance from Woodward and a show stopping feature from Ogawa that found him deploying soft, squeaky toys as percussion, the squeaks deployed to replicate the sounds of a hip-hop DJ’s scratching. This was great fun, and naturally the crowd loved it, but there was real technical virtuosity behind the humour.
“You’re Never Going To Get It” saw a sultry Woodward encouraging the audience to sing along, while an unusual arrangement of “Don’t Let Me Be Understood” introduced a hint of reggae to all the other elements.
A hugely enjoyable set came to an end with the trio offering their distinctive take on “You’re The One That I Want” - yes, the one from “Grease”. This was delivered as an insidious slow blues, whose swampy grooves, allied to Woodward’s sensuous vocals, gave the song an air of menace that even the inevitable sing along sections couldn’t entirely dispel Definitely an improvement on the irritating, overly cheerful original.
So ended an enjoyable opening set that warmed the sell out audience up nicely. This was great fun, but behind the good humour there was also some genuinely impressive singing and playing, most notably from Hunter, a musician who has developed a unique guitar style that draws on many influences. This tour will have brought his talents, and those of the similarly versatile Woodward, to the attention of a whole new audience.
And so to the headliners. Snarky Puppy is routinely referred to as a ‘collective’ and “Immigrance” features the contributions of over twenty musicians, predominately
American, but hailing from all over the globe. The pool includes the highly talented British keyboard player and composer Bill Laurance, who also enjoys a successful parallel career as a solo artist.
Snarky Puppy’s live performances are delivered by a smaller group of key players, in tonight’s case a nine piece ensemble featuring the talents of;
Michael League – bass guitar
Mark Lettieri – electric guitar
Justin Stanton – keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn
Shaun Martin – keyboards, voice
Chris Bullock – tenor sax, flute, alto flute
Bob Reynolds – tenor sax
Mike “Maz” Maher – trumpet, flugelhorn
Jason Thomas – drums
Marcelo Woloski – percussion
In a packed, standing only crowd making notes was difficult, so this isn’t going to be a tune by tune account, more an impression of the overall Snarky Puppy experience. Guest contributor
Mark Albini’s short, but highly enthusiastic, account of the group’s show at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith in 2015 had given me some idea of what to expect. Review here;
Tonight was more like a rock gig than the average jazz concert and I found myself down in the ‘mosh pit’ among a much younger crowd than usual. Bristol’s large student population, in particular, seemed to be out in force. Snarky Puppy are a band who have acquired something of a cult following, and many of these people seemed to have seen the band before, six times in the case of one individual whose conversation I overheard, and knew every note of the tunes.
Snarrky Puppy have become ‘show biz’, without ever being overtly ‘show-bizzy’. The artwork from “Immigrance” was projected onto a screen behind the band, the same screen that had advertised the GroundUP Festival during the interval. Later close up black and white images of the musicians playing were projected, which was very helpful in terms of picking up details and appreciating the individual musicianship.
Routinely described as a”jam band” the success of Snarky Puppy’s music has always been based on memorable melodies and strong grooves. These qualities are to be found in abundance throughout “Immigrance”. Despite the studio embellishments both the new album and “Culcha Vulcha” represent a return to the band’s core values after their work with a whole series of guest vocalists, among them Lucy Woodward, on the two “Family Dinner” recordings.
“Sylva” (2015) then found them working, successfully, with an orchestra (the Netherlands based Metropole Orkest) for the first time.
As alluded to previously the majority of the material performed tonight was sourced from the two most recent albums, plus occasional forays into the impressive back catalogue. Pieces were frequently segued together and tune announcements were scant.
Snarky Puppy compositions are typically episodic affairs, allowing for plenty of variation in mood, pace and rhythm within the course of a single piece. The nine man line up, with its array of keyboards, and with several musicians doubling on different instruments, made for a rich, colourful sound, full of textural and dynamic contrasts. The lead changed hands frequently, although not in the conventional head-solos-head sense, with every musician featuring strongly at some point in the proceedings. This constant changing of roles, allied to the inherent sense of groove, helped to keep both band members and listeners on their toes. Individual solos and cameos were cheered wildly, and although they were tightly drilled one still sensed that the band members were having fun. Snarky Puppy exude a genuine gang mentality, a sense of being ‘all in this together’.
An opening salvo of (I think) “Alma”, Thing Of Gold” and Semente” included outstanding contributions from Stanton on electric piano, Woloski on percussion and Bullock on tenor sax. The impressive Stanton also doubled effectively on trumpet and flugel, and later on in the set soloed very effectively on trumpet, he is a genuine, and highly talented, multi-instrumentalist.
In the early days Snarky Puppy was almost exclusively the compositional province of League. These days more and more of its members write for the group and Stanton’s “Bad Kids To The Back”, from “Immigrance”, proved to be a big crowd pleaser, with Reynolds delivering an incisive tenor sax solo amid the choppy funk grooves.
“Tarova” and “Palermo” saw the group digging into the “Culcha Vulcha” repertoire. A feature of this sequence was Martin’s effective use of a voice bag, activated by synthesiser rather than guitar, which made the band’s grooves sound even dirtier and funkier. Like Stanton he also delivered a number of searing keyboard solos and was very much the ‘showman’ of the group, encouraging the audience to clap along and sing the melody lines, as on “Palermo”, and reprimanding anybody who didn’t do so.
All members of the band impressed, Thomas weighed in with a couple of hard hitting drum features and his dynamic playing helped to drive the band throughout. Maher impressed with some powerful trumpet soloing, but also displayed delicacy when required, particularly on flugel.
Woloski’s mastery of a whole battery of percussion was also impressive, and he enjoyed several features over the course of the evening. The Argentinian is also part of the group’s growing rank of composers, with the anthemic “Palermo” coming from his pen.
Guitarist Lettieri came into his own with an incendiary solo on League’s rousing composition “Chonks”, the high energy opening salvo on the “Immigrance” album and an absolute killer of a live track.
The only musician who didn’t really feature as a soloist was League himself, but his hard grooving bass playing represented the foundation stone of the band’s music as he presided over the night’s proceedings.
League encouraged the audience to clap along with his composition “Xavi”, a track from the “Immigrance” album that was inspired by the Gnawa music of Morocco. Here we were made to work, with League dividing the audience into separate sections clapping out different rhythms. It actually worked surprisingly well, with the energy of the crowd complementing that of the band. This piece also saw Ogawa returning to the stage together with guest British percussionist Felix Higginbottom, the two joining Woloski, as all three musicians roamed the percussion ‘cage’.
An encore of the crowd pleasing “Shofukan”, from the 2014 album “We Like It Here” saw Martin conducting the crowd in a mass sing along of the tune’s rousing and anthemic melodic hook. The concert became a community event as the audience radiated their love for the band and its music.
It had been early start with Hunter and Woodward on at 7.15 and the Pups at 8.15 prompt. It was now nudging ten o’clock and the Academy staff were keen to clear the venue before admitting a different audience for a club night scheduled to start at 10.30. Martin, however seemed reluctant to leave the stage, finally departing still singing. League had earlier revealed that on a sweltering summer night in the same venue in 2015 Snarky Puppy had stayed on to jam into the early hours of the morning, mostly at Martin’s insistence. If League is the group’s ‘benign dictator’ then Martin is its ‘wild card’, with both musicians united by a love of the music and an underlying work ethic. Snarky Puppy are disciplined and professional, but retain a vital energy, edge and spontaneity that prevents their music descending into mere ‘slickness’. The arrangements of several of tonight’s pieces had been ‘tweaked’ in an effort to keep the band sharp and retain a genuine jazz element.
They weren’t quite as loud as Mark’s review had led me to expect, but they were loud enough, and those “sassy and brassy” qualities that he mentioned also shone through with the punchy horn section complementing the multiple keyboards and guitars and the battery of percussion. It’s a big sound, high on energy, but also on precision, an award winning combination that has won Snarky Puppy a following that transcends the usual genre barriers.
On the evidence of tonight’s performance, and of the “Immigrance” album, this is a unit that even after fifteen years still has plenty of mileage in it.
The British and Irish leg of the Snarky Puppy world tour continues with dates as below. Catch them if you can.
11/11/2019 – Ulster Hall - Belfast
12/11/2019 - Olympia, Dublin, Ireland
14/11/2019 - Royal Albert Hall, London
15/11/2019 - O2 Apollo, Manchester
16/11/2019 - Barrowlands, Glasgow
For ticket details please visit http://www.snarkypuppy.com