The Rising Success of Snarky Puppy

Snarky Puppy’s recent spike in popularity seems to be surprising even those associated with them. As the band’s supplies were being loaded into the House of Blues, their road manager TJ Abbonizio remarked about the merch crisis they were currently experiencing: they had based their inventory on the last tour’s sales and just four cities in were struggling to meet fan demand. Their success is no fluke though; those in attendance at their Boston show saw full well the precision, experimentation and stage presence that have made them one of the most exciting names in jazz fusion.

The Grammy-winning NY-based band, formed in 2004 by likeminded University of North Texas students, has experienced a steady rise through the years, bolstered by strong critical and fan support in lieu of traditional marketing. Gaining particular praise for their mix of influences, the band’s sound is rooted in cerebral jazz music while freely exploring everything from funk and gospel to world music and progressive rock.

Part of the excitement of a Snarky Puppy show is seeing who ends up onstage. Bassist and bandleader Michael League is a constant, but each tour he plays with different members of his extended collective, with usually around ten playing each show. Complexity of the music aside, the shifting nature of the lineup makes for some interesting logistical issues.

“There are 25 guys that are constantly going in and out, so we have to be thoughtful about scheduling and making sure people get equal playing time and that the guys that have done the most traveling with us get priority,” League noted before the show.

That said, the constant change of voices, each bringing their own sonic interests and influences, has proven to be a creative boon for the band.

“I think that a lot of what helps the music to grow and to move forward is the injection of new personalities constantly,” said League. “I think that’s a big part of the music continuing to stay vital.”

After a brief performance that saw most of the band join excellent blue-eyed soul vocalist Lucy Woodward onstage, Snarky Puppy played a 90 minute set that had a sense of sonic cohesion while giving the band plenty of opportunity to play around. While tracks from We Like It Here, arguably the band’s most popular album, made up a large chunk of the setlist, they also explored songs from the recent Culcha Vulcha, their first in-studio recording in years.

“This was a return to the conventional studio album format,” noted League. “With that comes more possibilities for sonic exploration and experimentation and I think as a result the record is very moody and dark.”

With this being most fans’ first chance to hear the tracks live, there were some noticeable differences in the overall sound. The lack of woodwind and string elements was a bit disappointing, particularly on Vulcha highlight “Semente”, but overall they did a good job not only adapting the tracks but also adding an even more powerful edge, playing off the lively audience’s energy.

“We never play a song the same way twice,” said League. “We’re constantly responding to the audience. It’s not like we’re serving them, trying to give them what they want, but ultimately that we have a good time if they’re having a good time.”

As for the lineup, the absence of keyboardist Cory Henry, a core member who brings a gospel influence to the group, was a bit disappointing. However, Bill Laurence and Shaun Martin were impressive in their own right. The two played off each other very well especially during the more electronica-tinged segments from the new album, trading notes with laser-like intensity. The three-piece brass section also benefited from League’s self-described “more specific… horn arrangement” on the new tracks, adding a tight bombast that shone whenever they took over the melody.

The rhythm section was a highlight of the show, with the band’s dual percussionists regularly laying down impressive polyrhythms. While the complexity of their time signatures often made for a surprising energy shift, the drummers never alienated the audience, holding a firm balance between rhythmic experimentation and danceability.

Though never trying to make himself the center of attention, League was every bit the backbone of the band, holding the performance together like his bassline held together the songs. Quietly making changes on the fly and encouraging his bandmates’ improvisations, he would even lead the rest of the band offstage for a handful of impressive solos when the rhythm or key sections were onto something special. League’s commanding presence was matched only by his exuberance, noticeably gleeful when things went right and often playful with guitarist Bob Lanzetti. His focus on consistency and precision without losing a visible joy of performance embody what has made the band such an attractive live act.

Living up to the high standard they have set over the years, Snarky Puppy’s biggest tour yet is off to a great start, provided they can get that merch stocked.