Trying to keep up with all the rotating members of Snarky Puppy is a lot like trying to keep up with all the new flavors of Pringles -- there's too many to keep track of, and no matter what variety you get you're guaranteed to have a rumble in your ass. It's been a few years now that I've heard steady word-of-mouth reviews of this band that were all consistently comprised of one word: duuuuuude. Thus, when I saw they were coming to Portland for the Soul'd Out Music Fest, I jumped on it like crabs on a 70's porn star.
It seemed a majority of the packed house at Dante's were in the same boat as me -- at the gig because of the band's reputation rather than due to a resounding familiarity with their music. This led more than a few heads in the crowd to believe that the band's short opening set backing a female singer and her mellow soul tunes was the actual meat of the enchilada. When the same musicians walked on stage and started throwing down heavy funk-fusion, you could hear a collective "ooohhhhh" from all corners of the room. I will admit that I was initially disappointed to see that bassist and bandleader Michael League's Caucasian afro was currently in the trimmed back stages compared to some clips I had watched online, but I let it slide when I bore witness to his valiant attempt at facial hair. On the whole, these are some badass baby-faced motherfuckers, but OK… enough already, how 'bout one of them music reviews…
Robert Searight is an absolute monster on the drums. Jumping from gargantuan soul pops to thunder assaults at the drop of a hat, I half expected to see him collapse on the kit at the end of the set. There were times when some tunes would embody more of a funked down swagger, but for the most part it was a relentless attack on the skins all night. Together with the bass, the rhythm section's pocket skills were majestic, but League's most impressive trait is how much room he gives each song to breathe. Any time anybody on stage had a solo thrown their way, the structure of the music would flex around the lead licks creating a pulsing cushion for each player to comfortably roll on top of. Each horn player would raise the bar a little higher on their compatriots throughout the set, and there were several times when a brass solo made me dance like Neal Cassady with a belly full of bennies. Mike Maher's trumpet solos were the most incomparably dope parts of the set, but the all-star badge of the evening had to go to Justin Stanton.
Stanton would flip between the keys and the trumpet like a stoner jumps between nachos and a Snickers bar -- bringing a unique flavor to each but acting like either one was the defining piece of his existence. At one point after following up an absolutely disgusting trumpet section with an even more evil romp on the keys, it became clear that he himself is the instrument and whatever tool he uses to channel the divine is at his mercy. While at first I was bummed that the legendary Shaun Martin wouldn't be appearing on keys for this gig, three songs into the set I couldn't have cared less. Regardless of who's up there, there's enough talent on a Snarky Puppy stage to make old jazz cats take up knitting. The band is essentially the Wu-Tang Clan of jazz -- vicious, brilliant, and Voltron-like in their ability to unify individual powers.
Sadly, I couldn't tell you the name of one song they played this night, but at the same time it's not all that necessary. There were tunes they called new, and ones that were old-hat, but they were all crucially tight and relentlessly fresh. This is a band that you could see 1,000 times and never grow tired of. Your body would definitely crumble from a constant motion of dancing before your mind heard one note it would consider stale. Pay attention to this band. Right now. They're easily one of the top live acts of the moment destroying clubs across the world, and I'm already fiending for more.