Michael League’s jazz-fusion collective Snarky Puppy hit Auckland’s Powerstation last night and it was glorious! A fitting end to the first week of the band’s tour in support of their latest record, Immigrance, which released exactly one month prior to last night’s performance.
DJ Boomtown – better known as Chris Bullock, Snarky Puppy’s saxophonist/flautist – took to the stage as the opening act. Great choices of songs that showcased the band’s hip-hop and R&B influences, with Bullock functioning as less of a performing DJ and more as a playlist curator.
The band walked out onto the stage and picked up their instruments just to stand silently in the dark. A single spotlight found Keita Ogawa, the band’s percussionist. He taunted the ready crowd, playing an unclear drifting beat on his assortment of drums, bells and whistles. And then the band leapt right in.
Bad Kids to the Back, the most recent single, was an early highlight. Bob Lanzetti and League’s filthy guitar and bass-lines cut through syncopated drum breaks. Drummer Jason “JT” Thomas shone during the second half of the track as he messed with the timing, everyone altering their playing to follow his lead. Finally, the band returned to the main riff and the crowd cheered in disbelief.
The songs from Immigrance were at their peak when performed live on stage compared to the studio recordings. Sounding like their true forms when lathed in all the energy of the bands’ live set. Coven sounded majestic; opening with Mike Maher and Justin Stanton’s muted trumpets and building to ridiculous solos by keys player Shaun Martin, Lanzetti, and Justin Stanton on the piano. Chonks, a low point on the album, truly shined live from how much fun the band was having – the flubbed intro riff by keys player Bobby Sparks was complimented by Martin altering the sound of his Moog synth with a talk box, accentuating the beat with his keyboard, singing “CHONKS!”
Thing of Gold, the first classic song of the set, was a moment of glory and enlightenment. As the hook approached, Martin made sure the crowd knew they had to sing along. The entire audience belted their hearts out to a synth melody.
“This is the end of the first week of our tour,” said League, “We were just in Osaka, and this happened by accident…I wonder if we can recreate it here.” He instructed the left side of the room to clap 3 beats per bar, and the right side to clap 4 beats per bar. A rhythm that League describes as sounding like “pass the god damn butter” when heard together. Xavi is a 10-minute beast of a song, every member of the 9-piece band getting a turn to solo. Ogawa gets his solo as the crowd keeps the beat with their “pass the god damn butter” claps. During the climax of the track, the flute and hi-hat create a stimulating counter-rhythm to the main beat.
League let the room breathe before announcing that the band had one song left. His tone turned sombre, “You’ve been through a lot this past month… we have so much respect for the way your country handled it. You and your leaders inspire us as a model nation.” He talked of how Immigrance as an album is meant to represent diversity and introduced the closing track, Even Us, as an anthem for multicultural, multireligious and multiracial peace in the world.
Lanzetti’s baritone guitar set the dark emotive tone of the song, with Stanton’s trumpet solo played so tender and carefully he had to hold it right against the mic for his pining, mournful playing to cut through the other instruments. The bass, baritone guitar, and Moog synth combined in a low boom of sound that resonated the skin and the heart.
After the song, League named every band member, as well as the sound and lighting crew, giving everyone their moment in the crowd’s applause before the band made their way offstage.
Shortly after, the band was ready for an encore; the crowd was ready for a classic. “LINGUS!” Someone shouted. And sure enough, the band begun Lingus, the 11-minute epic closer from their 2014 album, We Like It Here. A song they played so well that I couldn’t help but stop writing things down – and just had to lose myself in the best off-kilter drum beat I’ve ever heard. Snarky Puppy are a crowd-pleasing band. Case in point – by the time I made my way to the exit, League was already in the merch booth meeting people and signing things, grinning from ear to ear.
Catch Snarky Puppy live tonight at the Opera House in Wellington.