Words & Photos by Frazier
This was one of those “gut feeling” type of shows. I had only seen a few random YouTube videos of Snarky Puppy, but the mountain of positive word-of-mouth for this band was far too massive to overlook. But not only was the band’s free jam-jazz attitude extremely intriguing, this show was happening at Mayne Stage. This place has been nothing short of stellar each of my two previous experiences, so the positive energy swells collided beautifully and there was no way I was going to let this concert slip through my grasp. And I’m a better person for it because this show was absolutely mind-blowingly incredible.
Seeing as it costs $4.50 for a train ride there and back–and parking a car in Rogers Park is a game of Russian Roulette–I decided to splurge on the $5 valet service the Mayne Stage offers. This was clearly the best option and worked out very well. I stepped into the marvelous music hall while Eastern Blok was on the stage. They were a four-piece jazz group with a very curious sound. The standout, by far, was the guitar player Goran Ivanovic. His guitar had this very strange, almost forlorn tone that sounded like something out of the desert of Northern Africa. His plectrum-free, classical playing style was incredibly impressive and really carried all of the enthusiasm I had for the music. It was cool, but I had a sneaking suspicion that I was about to get majorly Snarked.
After a surprisingly quick switchover, Snarky Puppy hit the stage and instantly launched the audience into an ecstatic, albeit seated, rage. As I mentioned earlier, I had no previous experience with this band so I knew none of the song titles. When I’m in a situation like this I try to take meticulous notes so I can sync my review with the setlist to some extent. But on this night taking notes was an extremely difficult task. Frankly, Snarky Puppy is about as close to an “unclassifiable” sound as I’ve encountered. A common theme I kept coming back to in my mind was the similarity to Frank Zappa. Despite the fact that this arrangement was different than Zappa’s–and completely devoid of vocals–it possessed a similar aura & general climate. The sound had a certain humor, a cleverness that suited the complex arrangement of instruments in a, well, snarky way. The demeanor of their energy had that tongue-in-cheek dimension, but the music did not. That was all business.
One thing that absolutely astonished me was the Stoked Level of the audience. The applause intensity to venue environment ratio was astronomical– people were going apeshit. And I was one of them. In the simplest terms, this band was a jam-jazz orchestra. All of the instruments seemed to come from eclectic sonic places but somehow arrived together in a very cohesive sound. For instance, the drumming from “Sput” Searight had a mostly jazzy strength, but the auxiliary percussion from Nate Werth and the bass from Michael League guitar helped drive a funkier spectrum of sound. In fact, League had a distortion pedal that turned his bass into a gooey funk hammer, creating that old school funky tone that caused the crowd to cheer every time. The guitar work also had a jazzier feel to it at times, but it would often veer off in full-bodied & powerful jam-toned shredding outbursts. Then the synths had a different thing going on altogether; at times, when the overall sound would calm down, the synthesizer would be producing a sound like the mist surrounding a low-hovering UFO, a milieu of spacey energy that allowed higher plane brain migration. All told, this was one seriously complex, yet stunningly comprehensible brand of music that completely blew my mind.
As the show wound on they kept inviting more and more guests on stage. Zach Brock had been on and off the stage on violin all night, lending a highly distorted, almost heavy metal stringed sound. But then they brought up Jen Hartswick to kick up the horn section with her trumpet. And then they invited a guest drummer named Calvin Rodgers to the stage and he brought with him a powerful style on the skins that was a nice change of pace from Searight. And then, to close the show (or so I thought), they invited Franchesca Johnson to the stage to sing. She had a gorgeous voice and the band proved they could shift gears and lay out a great tune to sing over as well as dominate the instrumental game. They successfully fooled the crowd and squeezed in one last instrumental jam.
The show ended very abruptly at the curfew. The final notes hadn’t even trailed off completely before house lights popped on and everyone snapped out of the music fog. I was completely dumbfounded. I had no idea how or where to start describing what I just experienced. When I asked a few friends in attendance to help me grasp what I just experienced, the responses I got weren’t much help either. “Epic hot fire” and “MY FACE” were the five words total I got out of my friends, so at least I wasn’t the only one at a loss for words.
This was easily one of the finest musical performances I’ve seen thus far in 2011. Snarky Puppy had me bouncing my head and grooving in my seat for two straight hours. Not only was the music ultra dank, top shelf shit, but the venue once again proved to be outstanding. The sound was crisp, bright, and absolutely pristine. It’s been a long time since I left a show with this severe a case of Dropjaw… Needless to say, I will be catching Snarky Puppy at each and every future opportunity I have.