Concert Review: Snarky Puppy – Powerstation, April 15, 2019

Three-time Grammy Award winners, Snarky Puppy, brought their weird, wild, and wonderful one-of-a-kind performance to Auckland’s Powerstation last night, mixing jazz, funk, and warped rock into a 90-minute musical rollercoaster.

It was interesting to walk into Powerstation as the doors opened and hear music already vibrating through the walls, with DJ Boomtown – Snarky Puppy saxophonist, Chris Bullock – on stage mixing a combination of jazz-funk beats throughout the rapidly filling venue. Perhaps it was just a change from the previous punk and psychedelic-rock gigs I’d attended, but there was an immediate, disparate, and slightly disorienting energy present from the start.

This served as a fitting introduction to the night, however, as Snarky Puppy elicited quite the same reaction; immediately intriguing, slightly disorienting, and incomparable to anything else I’d ever seen on stage. I reiterate that here because the musical comparisons that follow are going to be wildly head-scratching in how they might work together – just know that they did, and more than my knowledge of musical instruments can do them justice.

Opening with phenomenal talent in Keita Ogawa on percussion and Chris Bullock on saxophone, bassist and frontman, Michael League took the crowd on a cognitive tour through the streets and jazz bars of Brooklyn, building on the soundtrack feel through to their intimate, abstract third song, Coven.

League’s grimey, deeply warped bass in their following number gave way to an ear-splitting electric guitar howl, which tossed the set from local, NZ roots and funk sounds into Southern rock in a matter of seconds. This was a consistent highlight for the band and the set as a whole, showcasing the potential of instruments, and the layered, frenzied, but controlled sound created by experimental musicians coming together and letting go of what they think they should sound like.

A short section reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells can suddenly change pace into Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – yet throughout, it was an example of talented musicians demonstrating what they do best, and having fun doing so. A rare moment of speech to the crowd touched on recent tragedy in New Zealand, with League expressing his respect for how the nation had handled the horror:

“We deal with a lot of ugly things and a lot of ugly rhetoric in our country, and [you have] our heartfelt love for what you’ve been through the past month. We really have so much respect for how your country has handled it. I wish we had people [to] deal with things the way it was dealt with.You’ve been an inspiration for us as a nation.”

Their closing, pre-encore song, Even Us, began with a heavy-hearted build I can only compare to Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor, before introducing a haunting electric sitar that instantly took me back to Jozef van Wissem’s lute score for the film Only Lovers Left Alive. Finally, with the measured rise of drums seeping through, the crowd heard a flugelhorn solo that reminded me of the moment I discovered Dizzy Gillespie’s magical trumpet playing.

As League said of their latest album, Immigrance, in closing to the Powerstation crowd, “[it’s] about motion, where we come from 100, or 1,000 years ago, [what] we take from everyone.” – last night the crowd saw all manner of musical styles, an extraordinary range of instrumental ability, and a performance from a group still pushing the limits of their sound and capabilities as musicians.

Oxford Lamoureaux

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