Anytime you go to Madison Square Garden, it’s special. I’ve been to almost every kind of event the venue has to offer, from the obvious Knicks and Rangers games to boxing matches to concerts ranging from a Phish NYE (my only Phish show, to the despair of my phanatic roommates) to Billy Joel, the only show I’ve ever been too where everyone remained seated the entire time.
Vulfpeck was different.
Even before the boys started playing, you could feel the energy in the room. The opener, The Fearless Flyers, an amalgamation of Vulfpeck members and featured players comprised of Cory Wong and Mark Lettieri (Snarky Puppy) on guitar, Joe Dart on bass, and Nate Smith on drums, had the arena filled early for their New York debut. They did not disappoint.
Sunglasses and free-standing guitar stands completed their look, while Nate Smith put on a drumming clinic from which those in attendance still have not recovered. The Fearless Flyers covered the Vulf-plus discography incredibly well in their short set, bringing us back to the Ann Arbor days with “Barbara”, a song from the 2012 EP, Vollmilch. This set the tone for the Flyers and brought the fans up to the rafters with a clean-cut sound and rhythmic dance routines.
The Fearless Flyers – “Barbara” – 9/28/19 – Madison Square Garden
“Hero Town”, off the 2017 Vulfpeck album, Mr. Finish Line, was accompanied by Eddie “Buzzsaw” Barnash on saxophone, who played with both bands throughout the night. They even threw in a Cory Wong solo song, “Simon”, a single from 2016, complemented extremely well by the best man on four strings, Joe Dart. The Flyers brought down the house with this rare live performance at MSG, and the main event was still to come.
A certain amount of schtick is to be expected at every Vulf show you see, and when the roadies were done revealing the stage setup for the headlining performance, it was evident that this show would, of course, be no exception. A living room set, complete with chairs, lamps, ottomans, tapestries, and carpets adorned the stage, protecting the sacred ground from the platitude of instruments that covered it. We were later informed these set pieces were, indeed, the exact same furnishings that decorated the Ann Arbor living room where Vulfpeck first started some 10 years ago, having been shipped in that very day (at least according to Theo Katzman). Illuminating the band from behind was a neon Vulf logo, their signature font glowing triumphantly over the Garden stage.
Guest Mike Winograd and his clarinet appeared on the stage first, stroking emotions with the klezmer musings of “The Sweet Science” from 2016’s The Beautiful Game as a forlorn Jack Stratton crawled out from behind the stage, stopping briefly to despair on an ottoman before making his way to the center of the stage. His signature head-piece microphone was equipped and ready.
Cue the “Tee Time” intro and all the members were introduced one by one as if they were the Knicks taking the court. Once all members were settled in, including guests Joey Dosik on keys and local percussionist Richie Rodriguez. Theo started thumping his kit and the entire arena erupted as “Animal Spirits” rang out to usher in the biggest show of Vulfpeck’s career.
The band kept things interesting, mixing in old and new tunes, and Cory-era songs such as “Cory Wong” featuring Jack Stratton on guitar, before bringing us back once again to Ann Arbor with a rare instrumental, “My First Car”. “Daddy’s Got A Tesla” ripped through the speakers as Nate Smith re-appeared from backstage, performing an outstanding drum solo before leading Joe Dart into a familiar yet impressive display of sixteenth note prowess.
By this point, everyone in the arena was good and worked up, and who better to bring them back to Earth than the woman who is in no small part responsible for where Vulfpeck today: Mrs. Stratton herself.
Jack’s mom calmly walked to the center of the stage to lead the entire 14,000-plus crowd in guided meditation, leading a synchronicity that has not been matched since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony. Once our energies were re-focused, a rendition of “Smile Meditation” featuring Dave Koz on saxophone and Chris Thile on mandolin promptly left jaws on the floor. Most notably, a giddy Cory Wong was seen melting to the floor as Koz and Thile battled back and forth, mirroring the feelings of those in the crowd.
Vulfpeck w/ Chris Thile & Dave Koz – “Smile Meditation” – 9/28/19 – Madison Square Garden
[Video: Larry Rulz III]
On cue, the band moved smoothly into the Vulfpeck arrangement of Joey Dosik’s classic “Running Away”, followed by another guest appearance by Charles Jones for his signature Vulf feature on “Baby I Don’t Know”. These two powerhouse vocalist/pianists stunned the crowd with their emotional efforts, leaving many in the arena unsure how it could get any better. But the all-star speech pathologist himself was about to remind us of the true power behind Vulf’s music.
As Antwaun Stanley came running onto the stage, the beginnings of “1612” rumbling from the speakers, the entire garden erupted into cheers of euphoria. This led us into a “Funky Duck” that was capped off when Cory Wong, who usually finds his way into the crowd at some point during the song, was unable to make it into the pits of the arena. After some confusing spotlight searching, he appeared back onstage—appropriately wearing a duck mask.
Melissa Gardiner had made her way onto the stage to accompany the band for “Funky Duck”, but her trombone was featured directly afterward on “Aunt Leslie”, another chance for Vulf to show off their impressive guests—and for Stanley to wow the crowd with his unmatched range and emotion.
Soon, the band was in full swing with map-charting song, “Wait for the Moment”, which evolved into an “instrumental acapella” led by Woody Goss on keys, Winograd on clarinet, Wong on guitar and, eventually, Stanley.
Vulfpeck w/ Antwaun Stanley – “Wait For The Moment” – 9/28/19 – Madison Square Garden
[Video: Michael Mccolgan]
For those, like myself, who have seen Vulfpeck at every opportunity possible, the “Wait For The Moment” acapella usually signals the infamous “set break,” essentially a Ted Talk given by Jack Stratton. These talks are usually about the importance of regular bean-eating, emerging market investment advice, or even the effects of asparagus on human urination. As all Vulfpackers know, schtick is a schtaple at Vulfpeck shows, but this talk was different.
Jack spoke of the band’s journey, describing the hills they have climbed in NYC to get to this point. Rockwood Music Hall in 2014, Brooklyn Bowl in 2015 (at which point Joey Dosik was added as a permanent fixture on the Vulf circuit) Central Park in 2016 (Cory Wong’s introduction to NY Vulf fans), three nights at Brooklyn Steel in 2017, and two nights at Kings Theatre in 2018. He explained how they turned down the advice of their peers to play at Terminal 5 before attempting the play the Garden.
“We’re gonna climb, not Mount Washington, but Mount Madison Square Garden,” an invigorated Stratton told the crowd. “I get Tony Robbins results at TJ Maxx prices”. Hill Climber is not just the name of the band’s latest album, it is their life philosophy. Stratton then jokingly teased a summer-long residency in the Catskills next year, an amusing nod to the Borscht Belt sensibilities that have always influenced his quirky aesthetics.
Vulfpeck – Jack Stratton Keynote – 9/28/19 – Madison Square Garden
[Video: Michael Mccolgan]
The interludes did not end with Jack’s “Hill Climber” speech. After an excellent “Peck-a-pella” portion by “the leading Vulfpeck cover band” and a mind-blowing “Beastly”—of course featuring Joe Dart on the JOE-DART-BASS (it may not be a Fender anymore, but it’s still just as funky)—Theo gave a heartfelt tribute to all the fans who traveled by “Trains, Planes, and the LIRR,” thanking them for making a successful Vulfpeck MSG show a reality.
Vulfpeck – “Back Pocket (Peck-a-pella)” – 9/28/19 – Madison Square Garden
[Video: Michael Mccolgan]
The band then went straight into “Christmas in LA” complete with the famous three-part crowd harmony that Theo leads at every show. As if the complexities of pulling this off at the world’s greatest arena and Vulfpeck’s largest venue to date were not enough, there was an issue with the band’s microphones and during the attempt to secure the largest harmonization ever recorded in Vulf history—no one but the guys on stage could hear what was going on. The crowd salvaged the harmony as best they could and the band ended their set with the instrumental “Dean Town”, complete with the obligatory bass line sing-a-long from the audience.
After a short and disingenuous attempt to leave the stage, the band returned for encore renditions of “Birds of a Feather” featuring Antwuan Stanley and “It Gets Funkier”, crescendoing into a “Back Pocket” reprise and a signature Jack Stratton handstand. As “Welcome to Vulf Records” blared over the stadium speakers, all the band members and guests came out for a curtain call, putting a cap on an unforgettable show.
Watch a full, pro-shot video of Vulfpeck’s MSG debut below:
Vulfpeck – Madison Square Garden – 9/28/19 – Full Pro-Shot Video
Vulfpeck MSG Video Credits
Mixing and Mastering
Maybelle Pineda (tapestry artwork)
Amber Vallance (www.ambervallance.com)
Recording and Front of House
Fonts in Use
Eckmannpsych and Vulf Mono
by oh no type co
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Check out a gallery of photos from Saturday night’s show below courtesy of photographer Sandra Braverman.
Vulfpeck currently has no scheduled tour dates on their calendar. To stay up to date with the band and for more information, head to Vulfpeck’s website or follow them on social media (Twitter, YouTube, Instagram).
Setlist: Vulfpeck | Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | 9/28/2019
Set: Intro, Animal Spirits, Cory Wong, My First Car, Daddy, He Got a Tesla, Smile Meditation, Running Away, Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh, 1612, Funky Duck, Aunt Leslie, Wait for the Moment, Back Pocket, Beastly, Christmas in L.A., Dean Town
Encore: Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together, It Gets Funkier