Snarky Puppy – Powerstation April 6, 2017


“Have you heard Snarky Puppy? You’ve gotta see them!” So I was told by several music-loving friends. Having actually never heard them, I checked out their set at The Powerstation, the band’s first-ever Auckland gig.

As it turns out, Snarky Puppy is a jazz-fusion collective led by Texas-based bass player Michael League. They describe themselves as “a pop band that improvises a lot…without vocals”. These guys obviously haven’t heard what passes for pop music lately.

What they sound like to me is a straightforward jazz fusion band…the kind that thrived throughout the 1970s. I know, I saw quite a few of them back in the day, including a gig with Weather Report featuring Jaco Pastorius (much as I hate to bragg).

The show began a few minutes after 9pm with all nine members of the band filling up the Powerstation stage. From left to right they were: Chris Bullock (sax, flute), Mike Maher (trumpet), Keita Ogawa (percussion), Justin Stanton (electric piano, trumpet), Michael League (electric bass), Mark Lettieri (electric guitar), Bobby Sparks (keyboards), Jason ‘J.T.’ Thomas (drums) and Shaun Martin (keys & synths).

They opened with, what I believe, was a track from their latest album, Culcha Vulcha. It reminded me of the music Herbie Hancock was making in his Maiden Voyage days and featured an electric piano solo by Stanton. Meanwhile the percussion team of Ogawa and Thomas cooked away underneath.

League, who was front and centre, led the next selection with a funky bass pattern while Sparks added to the funk with his stabs at his Hammond organ. Stanton then switched from piano to trumpet.

The whole vibe was cookin’. The Powerstation looked to be filled with fans who were ready to get down and Snarky Puppy were more than happy to oblige. There was a distinct P-Funk feel to the next tune, with Martin tossing in Bernie Worrell-style synth lines.

League spoke to the crowd, informing us that this was the first of a 70-date international tour and we had caught them while they were fresh.

Needless to say, as the evening went along, everyone had the chance to solo, with Shaun Martin at the far right in his colourful flowing robe, gesticulating, pointing conducting and generally adding a bit of show biz to the affair.

The crowd loved it.

Although the band’s music contains no lyrics, there were occasional vocals. These usually consisted of whoa-whoas that turned into brief sing-alongs. A little audience participation never hurts.

While I enjoyed myself throughout the nearly 2-hour set, I did find myself wishing that they would try something a little more adventurous now and then. These are obviously very talented players and it would be cool to see and hear them push themselves a bit more.

The percussion solo near the end never really took off and there were a few times when they sounded like they were playing a classic 70s TV theme song…Barney Miller or The Rockford Files, anyone? And that vocoder Martin used got old fast.

But I must say, the sound itself was excellent in the Powerstation. I could hear everyone, and though it was loud, it wasn’t too loud.

These guys genuinely love to play. League announced that once they were finished, he, Lettieri and Thomas would be hi-tailing to Neck Of The Woods for another set.

So nothing new here, but plenty of good grooves.

Marty Duda

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