SXSW Review: Snarky Puppy, Cedar Street Courtyard [March 19, 2016]

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In my experience, Cedar is always crazy at night during SXSW. During the day it hosts great gatherings of music lovers, most of whom listen peaceably (not that a fight has never broken out during the day at Cedar…) But when the sun goes down it really starts to attract the die-hard fans with a list of established acts from completely distinct genres that leaves one wonder how they wrote the venue’s advert. It’s not like The Sanctuary or The Church, where there is a set stereotype of people who visit. The crazy doesn’t occur spontaneously, either, but from the explosive mixture of determined drunk-jocks and die-hards. A few years ago I saw Trampled by Turtles there, and fights broke out. At a bluegrass concert? How the hell is that even possible? So when I learned that I would not be allowed onto the upper balcony where I’ve spent so much of my sheltered SXSW life, I hesitated, and not with a small level of trepidation went down into “the front”. What awaits me there when a 10+ piece jazz act starts playing?

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Snarky Puppy is a jazz collective that started in Denton, TX in 2004 and is now based in Brooklyn. I won’t pretend to be a long-time fan and give a history lesson from regurgitated Wiki, but I think their size lends easily to a huge variety and flexibility, and they can change the balance between instruments easily from piano, brass, to even choirs and strings when they play opposite to orchestras. This night started with Snarky family members like Bill Laurence and Cory Henry taking the stage for their own, more keyboard oriented jaunts, assisted by the rest of the collective. Banda Magda (photo above), a Greek/French act, also showcased her crowd-control talents with Snarky Puppy’s help through songs full of quirky joie de vivre. All-the-while that crowd grew larger and my personal bubble diminished until people were basically joined at the hips. I could barely lift my camera and had to hold it by my neck for most of the concert. But as soon as the composer and bassist Michael League started arranging his fuzz-enhanced cranium through the air, I knew that this was going to be a fight/mosh-pit free show. The audience was devoid of bottled tension and undercurrents. Throughout the whole concert, people shrugged off being pushed around by the late-arrivals and their girlfriends, who were always holding 3 beers and on the verge of drenching your camera while they tried on Moses’ guise in attempts to part the crowd and reach the promised front row spot. Perhaps this was the jazz music at work, or perhaps the genre have selectively bred a docile following. But that’s a egg/chicken circle that we don’t need to chase here.

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They went through some of their most popular tunes: Thing of Gold (with sing-alongs), Shofukan, and What about me. The band was playful and as emotive as any an emoji, clearly oblivious to the fact that it was 3AM in New York. Less of a pedestrian stroll through a fairground and rather a detailed, guided tour for a storied castle, Snarky Puppy hit all of the landmarks and managed to still sound great to my ears, which in instrumental terms is trained to more classical music. But this is, in case one forgets, jazz. Improvisation, solos and punctuated paused abound, unlike classical music where one typically listened for the pace/tempo, key changes and intonation/clarity in the concert master or pianist. With so much fresh fare on the menu, the crowd ate it all up like sumo wrestlers at a steak dinner. I never knew one could head-bang to jazz music and still look reasonably respectable. The band finished with Lingus, which I can only guess is a portmanteau of “long” and “Mingus”. At 10 minutes (and far more during this session), it’s the longest piece in the whole set. It’s a masterful yet entertaining ride that you should try and sit/jog through if you have the chance. The improvised keyboard section (which was around 3 minutes itself), followed by what I describe as a heated argument between the brass and keyboard (that would make the angry man of jazz proud) is so interesting yet melodically sound that it left my face with a type of botox smile for a long while after, as I walked back to the hotel at 2AM. In conclusion – yes, it was the best decision I’ve made on a Saturday night in SXSW, ever.

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Posted on by Gary in Concerts, Everything, South By Southwest

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