You’d be forgiven for wondering who the bandleader was when 9 regular looking chaps walked onstage at the O2 Apollo last Thursday. Only 3 saxophonists, 2 drummers, 2 keyboardists, a bassist, and a guitarist – without counting the number of instruments each of them switched between… I had to ask which one the phenomenally-named Michael League was to my mate who indicated the bassist as he opened the set off with the twirling bassline to “GØ”.
I was soon extremely glad I’d ditched the comfy looking balcony seats I’d had planned on sitting on to stand on the floor with my friends. “I’ll just peacefully enjoy and admire the professionalism and skilful, pinpoint execution on show from my elevated height” I had naively thought upon buying the tickets. Although possible and no doubt thoroughly enjoyable, I’d have been a fool and missed out on the intrinsic hip-shaking, finger-clicking urge that comes with the propagation of their brand of modern jazz.
As the title implies, “GØ” got the ball rolling as both the audience and band members eased and felt their way into it, until saxophonist Chris Bullock took it upon himself for the first solo and from then on, the tone was set. From sax to minimoog to guitar, the solos never stopped, each and every one to huge acclaim from the buoyant crowd, with the songs swaying one way and the other under the calm leadership of Michael League, who seemed content to take a back seat to proceedings, leaving the spotlight to the other members and their instruments as they swirled in and out of the songs.
That did lead to every small moment of magic from Michael’s bass being greeted with an even bigger roar of approval.
They followed the opener with two further songs from their latest effort, 2016’s Australian-pronounced Culcha Vulcha, starting off with setlist oddity – if such a band can be considered to have “oddities” in their catalogue – “Beep Box”, a slow and quiet jam morphing into slow but bouncy when the first synth line suddenly ghosts in out of nowhere and the bass bounds around with its descending line, all of it topped off with a flugelhorn (“a what?” I know..) solo outro. A quite surreal and otherwordly tune that only further showcased their eclecticism, if any doubts still lingered…
And then it was back to familiar territory and regular groovy business with “Grown Folks” with snazzy bass and guitar riffs to uphold another uncannily familiar horn riff.
For some reason, Michael felt the need to calm things down a notch for a moment by switching to some older songs that guitarist Chris McQueen got going with some beautiful arpeggios until the trumpets eased themselves in effortlessly to the tune. And when the conga came in, the “Flood” was well and truly on its way, with Bob Reynolds throwing out a surging tenor solo culminating in a booming cascade of tight drumrolls over a backdrop of looping piano and shimmering horns. If only for their length and diversity I’ll spare you the details and shan’t go into every solo that was performed but by the end, it was safe to say “Flood” hadn’t calmed things down even a smidgeon.
“Tarova” kept things going with a percussive intro grooving into a sexy late-night sounding soundtrack to some parallel bygone era of an intense and modern roaring twenties, complete with a mean ole dirty tenor solo by Bullock. A velvety “Gemini” then began with a soft but pounding bassline intro coupled with easy and effortless guitar and piano, calming things down to a serene calmness. A few backing vocals kept the mood flowing as the song bubbled its way along with the silky backdrop a welcome change in mood as Minimoog and Rhodes solos acted as the calm before the storm that was to come.
That storm was “Tio Macaco”.
Percussionist Marcelo Woloski started jamming hard on a pandeiro (“a what?”): how such a small-looking instrument can be made to sound so strong and powerful I’ll never know but Marcelo worked it like a charm during the intro (and afterwards!) until the horns kicked in, sounding once more like a song you’ve always known but never actually heard before. More wonderful solos ensued from the ever-reliable horn section and other instrumentalists but the highlight came towards the end with a double percussion solo-cum-battle between both drummers.
If I was already fixated on drummer Larnell Lewis before this – we had trouble deciding who our favourites were (it’s not a competition though is it?) – it did nothing to lessen my admiration of him or both of them as they swung one way or the other mimicking the other’s drumrolls, calling and responding or just ripping it up in tandem. It was a fantastic end to a great tune and a treat to watch them sweating it out!
Michael League got “Big Ugly” started with his rolling bass line and it settled into the now-familiar pattern of building a head of steam and then slowing things down before the big climaxing crescendo when the synth kicks in first, then the horns and finally Chris McQueen, letting it rip for one of the most euphoric and majestic solos of the night. I had a new favourite.
And then they unleashed the “hits” – if you can call them such from a band like Snarky Puppy – or fan-favourites from their “breakthrough” album We Like it Here starting with “Lingus”, stretching to 14 minutes and feeling fuelled on adrenaline and sweaty good vibes. The song incited the first handclaps to the song’s undeniably uplifting and catchy melodic vibes before Michael slowed it all down to introduce the band to unanimous applause – special cheers reserved for drummer Larnell Lewis and respected England-based keyboardist Bill Laurance who fronts his own similar iteration of the band with frontman Michael League. Having had the temerity to ask for some more Bill, we were duly treated to an insane and sublime prolonged solo from him as the song rose and crescendoed – or descended? – into madness with the percussion following suit and providing manic backbone to it all . As “Lingus” resumed its “regular” course, Bill switched to the Rhodes piano for the outro, for some ethereal and intangible but truly funky vibes as the song kept climaxing to its bittersweet end.
Coming across as a genuine Michael League popped back onstage alone for the encore to give a humble little speech about the importance of supporting live acts by encouraging to stay open minded support for smaller bands by buying their music and going to watch them perform instead of streaming their music which he bemoaned doesn’t cater to these smaller. “There’s a big difference between listening to music and supporting music”.
And then the first clear guitar notes of “Shofukan” rang out for their closing song. The Oriental-sounding horns quickly came into the fray, laying themselves over with their distinctive Eastern (yet Snarky Puppyish) sound. Justin Stanton treats us to a subtle and restrained solo, at times threatening to burst out but keeping it beautifully controlled. And come the song’s closing horn leitmotif, the last two minutes – and even when they’d left – of the song were heartily sung by the five thousand or so ardent fans in the venue, giving the audience the feeling of having been able to participate in the complex and jazzy Snarky Puppy recipe for good times.
(O2 Apollo, 5th of May 2017, Manchester, U.K.)