Left to right: Bill Laurence, Michael League. Manchester Jazz Festival 2013
(Manchester Jazz Festival. Band on the Wall, 28 July 2013. Review by Adrian Pallant)
My first experience of the Brooklyn-based collective that is Snarky Puppy was back in January 2013, when three members of the band – Michael League (electric bass), Bill Laurence (keys), Robert "Sput" Searight (drums) – undertook a week's residency programme in Manchester, a life-changing experience for all involved, as Kieran Mcleod reported at the time. This Arts Council-supported initiative, created by Wall of Sounds (a partnership between Brighter Sound and Band On The Wall), saw thirteen emerging musicians working with the three Americans and creating a memorable gig of entirely newly-forged music.
Fast forward six months to Sunday night, and to a headline sell-out gig at Band On The Wall from a full-scale, nine-piece Snarky Puppy. But first... a wonderful surprise – 'the thirteen' all returned to a packed house to perform their entire set with their three mentors! It felt like a real homecoming for all of us who had gathered there last winter.
And, so to Snarky Puppy – a thunderous, creative New York powerhouse of keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, trumpets/flugel and sax. They are a fascinating group, who interact readily with their fast-growing UK following – they've only been visiting these shores for the last fourteen months and already have a special affection for this venue. Influences are many, but perhaps summed-up as a fusion of jazz, funk, rock, soul, Seventies-retro, dubstep and garage... yet somehow they achieve pounding, improvised grooves which hang together tightly and connect with a wide age-range. The young guys beside me – at the front of a hot, heaving mass! – responded excitedly and vocally to every physical and musical move made by the band who gladly reciprocated. And a great part of the magic is that, for the duration of their fast-moving 90-minutes-plus set, Snarky Puppy constantly amaze and even shock each other with their quick-switching, unexpected improvisations – all pinned together with huge, mutual respect and trust.
Keys player Bill Laurence (from London, the band's only non-American) provides a huge creative influence, clearly relishing the music and thriving on the madcap jinks and camaraderie. League, as leader, is a thrilling bassist to watch up-close, his 'outraged' facial expressions to the rest of the band (and audience) as animated as his technique! He explained to me that they always seek new ways of presenting their music, to keep things fresh – and one fan expressed how impressive it is that they spontaneously deconstruct and then reconstruct their album tracks to create a different live experience every time. That said, they have their 'potboilers', with the memorable pitch-bent synth riff of 'Thing of Gold' (from their 'Ground Up' album) a great crowd-pleaser. At 'mjf', they clearly wanted to party (this was the final leg of a European tour before returning to the States), with League – later seen sporting an "I (heart) MCR" badge – claiming that Manchester was the only crowd that succeeded in clapping offbeat in 7! Playing out with a new album track (welcoming back their 'students' who had helped preview it in January), the whole house vocalised its anthemic hook to a grand climax.
Snarky Puppy have now been together for almost a decade. For their sheer drive, enthusiasm and breathtaking musicality – along with a remarkable sense of community and development – they deserve all their growing popularity.
Next UK appearance: 17th November, Village Underground, London (TICKETS).