Live Review: Snarky Puppy @ The Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver - September 13th 2023

Live Review: Snarky Puppy @ The Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver – September 13th 2023

If you’re on the fence about jazz or feel a bit lukewarm about recordings you’ve tried, the best advice I could give is to go see something live! More specifically, go see Snarky Puppy live. The prolific and innumerable jazz act from Texas has been bringing their special sauce of jazz, funk, and rock to audiences for nearly 20 years now, cementing themselves as contemporary titans. The group has developed a loyal fanbase across the globe, and this showed this Wednesday at their sold-out show at the Commodore Ballroom. The band is touring in support of their latest thoughtful produce, 2022 album Empire Central, which bagged the band their fourth Grammy award. 

A band with a “more the merrier” policy, the huge troupe of Snarky Puppy band members piled onto the stage, their panoply of instruments in tow, and dived right in. In the live iteration, their music is always going to amp up tenfold in excitement, crispness, punch, and overall audio stimulation. The band proved that from the outset, building peaks and troughs in innovation hooks. The trumpet player was the first to showcase his soloing prowess in a freewheeling excerpt, starting in the low end of the register and building to a screeching upper echelon. The bongo was next to thrill with his rhythmic stylings across a range of tones, astonishingly synching up with the snare drum at the conclusion. The band came back together to a pleasing unison once more.

Their second number rocked a delightfully wound-down pace, like an experiment in what happens when you play a funk time at half the tempo. Tenor sax riffing and vintage electric organ keys trilled through the melody, building to a wailing crescendo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fiddle in a contemporary jazz band, but inexplicably it worked as showcased in the third song, at times the timbre imitation of a woodwind, and in other moments it shone in its pure string form. As the song picked up pace, his bowing got wild, giving me shivers.

After the fourth mesmerizing tune from Empire Central, the band finally paused to address the crowd. Creator, bassist, and principal composer, Michael League, expressed joy to be back in Vancouver after four long years, shouting out the beauty of our city, our nature, and not to forget our weed shops on every corner. He introduced another new track “Honiera”, written by violinist Zack Brock, with a unique travelling funk line. The funk carried on into the next bass slapping number with a rich horn charge and a wowing electric guitar solo. 

The ensemble slowed things down for a mournful trumpet-fueled number before picking the pace right back up again with the snappiest bop of the night. “We’ll play another new one…well, I guess that’s what we’ve been doing all night,” League joked, before telling the heartfelt origin story of the coming tune. One of the band’s great inspirations and constant supporters was the obscure keyboard player Bernard Wright. He helped them hone their sound and hosted epic jam sessions in the band’s hometown of Denton, but his life was tragically cut short. League implored everyone to check out Wright’s music, as he didn’t get the recognition he deserved, and dedicated the next song “Belmont”, to him.

A sole spotlight fell on keyboardist Bobby Sparks on a dark stage and the gentle and emotive tune opened up. The tune was wistful yet hopeful and reflective, with plenty of breathing room, concluding full circle with the peaceful tinkling of keys. In stark contrast, they hit it hard on the next tune, verging on metalesque volume and intensity. Much of the band dropped out halfway, leaving the stage to a sole drum beat and a Lonestar soundscape of reverbing electric guitar chords. As instruments return one by one, the dynamic track built and built to a sizzling rock-heavy peak of restrained chaos. 

Nearing the end of the set, so the background of a funky noodling bass, bandleader League introduced his talented cohorts one by one. The erratic baseline sparked popping drumming and gave way to a short and sweet final song that wobbled around the beat into glimpses of synchronicity. The evening was packed full of mind-bending creativity and instrumental perfection. The crew really brought Empire Central to life the way they only could by making the bold musical alchemy in their moment on stage, and the packed house was absolutely thrilled to catch a glimpse.

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