There is a certain freedom that comes with being an instrumental outfit like Snarky Puppy. Whereas a vocally-focused act may feel compelled (if not outright implored) by its fans to roll through all the same hits, show after show, until the tread wears off, those that eschew lyrics—and, ideally, compensate with spirited instrumentation—are granted more leeway for experimentation by default.
Not that bandleader and bassist Michael League would’ve let on otherwise. He certainly didn’t during Snarky Puppy’s triumphant return to the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles on the final Friday of May.
As his 11-piece ensemble soared through a slew of songs off 2019’s Immigrance including the Justin Stanton-penned “Bad Kids to the Back”, League took a moment to acknowledge the packed house and thank all those in attendance for bearing with the fresh cuts. He joked that he couldn’t tell whether the crowd was clapping because they disapproved of the new material or the old. He spoke of the pleasure of moving forward in the band’s catalog after spending so much time drawing from the same well of material on recent tours—as if anyone would’ve taken issue with Snarky Puppy’s expansive array of musicians coming together for yet another sustained blast of brilliant sonic fusion, no matter what songs were on offer.
In this case, the group’s headlong dive into Immigrance gave the audience a long look at (and listen to) a more contemplative, if not more brooding, side to the Minimoogs, flutes and bongos that typically comprise a more playful sound. It marked a fitting shift for the times, one that Tedeschi Trucks Band showcased from its own perspective on the same stage a week prior.
To be sure, there was plenty of room for Snarky Puppy’s full range of styles and rhythms at the Orpheum. From rock and jazz to funk and Latin, the New York City-based collective strutted stridently through a nearly two-hour set that offered each of its attendant members ample opportunity to impress.
Stanton and Bobby Sparks both shined on their respective keyboards. So, too, did former Snarky Puppy member Cory Henry, who took a turn on Sparks’ setup while making a guest appearance during a “Lingus” encore. Each of the four members of Snarky Puppy’s horn section (i.e. Jay Jennings on trumpet, Mike “Maz” Maher on trumpet and flugelhorn, Chris Bullock on woodwinds and Bob Reynolds on tenor saxophone) blew more than a few minds by blowing through their respective instruments. Mark Lettieri shredded his guitar in spectacular fashion, and when League wasn’t busy taking the bassline out for a seductive stroll, he was doing his best to teach those in attendance how to syncopate their clapping patterns—“Because it’s a Snarky Puppy show,” League quipped.
The highlights of the night, though, came from some relatively surprising corners of the lineup. Zach Brock showcased a style of violin that would’ve had many (if not most) traditional players falling out of their chairs. With a slate of pedals at his feet, Brock treated attendees to psychedelic, guitar-style solos throughout the evening.
Toward the end of the set, League shouted out his grandmother and aunt, who were in attendance from his native Long Beach, before inviting three more Snarky-affiliated percussionists—Mike Mitchell, TaRon Lockett and Robert “Sput” Searight—onstage for a rhythm section jam that would’ve been the envy of even Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. One by one, each of those guest drummers took his turn on Jason “JT” Thomas’ kit while rotating through shakers, tambourines and a spot next to Nate Royce on percussion—And one by one, each lent his own flavor and flare to the proceedings, sending folks into a collective (seated) tizzy.
Such is the power of instrumental exploration like the kind routinely on offer from Snarky Puppy. While fans can’t shout and sway to songs the way they might to lyrical offerings, this particular brand of jazz fusion cuts toward something deeper and more primal. In the absence of something to sing along to, it sends those fortunate enough to partake in the experience into fits of barking and howling. Rarely (if ever) has the name “Snarky Puppy” ever felt like a more perfect fit.
Below, you can check out a full gallery of photos of Snarky Puppy at the Orpheum courtesy of photographer Brandon Weil.
For a full list of Snarky Puppy’s upcoming tour dates, head here.