Last night, Snarky Puppy made their debut in Hill Auditorium, marking their third and most-attended performance in Ann Arbor. The group has steadily climbed in popularity over the years, and more recently, their several accolades have launched them into stardom. I guess that would explain the traffic.
The evening began with Mama Sol, the opening act from Flint, MI., who warmed up the crowd just as much as she warmed the crowd. A self-proclaimed motivational hip-hop group, Mama Sol presented a series of original rap songs and spoken word pieces, hitting on potent, personal topics ranging from embracing individuality and loving life to speaking out against our nation’s current political climate, the degrading messages found in popular entertainment, and the Flint water crisis. Everything the group shared was given from a position of love and peace, which the packed hall drank up enthusiastically.
The transition between acts was foreboding: stagehands arranged two larger-than-life drum sets which loomed over three synthesizer keyboards, 2 electric guitars, bass, and amplified trumpet, flugelhorn, and tenor saxophone. When Snarky Puppy came out, bassist Michael League counted off his other eight bandmates into an incredible 90-minute set of sensitive artistry, powerhouse virtuosity, and relentless energy.
Drawing on jazz, rock, funk, and Latin influences, Snarky Puppy played numbers from the group’s latest Grammy-award winning album, Culcha Vulcha. The music was complex, but not so cerebral that anyone felt left out. There were no lyrics, yet everyone could sing along. People freaked out when percussionist Nate Werth exchanged his drumsticks for shakers in the middle of his solo. By the end, dozens of people were dancing in the aisles. Moments like these were plentiful over the course of the entire evening, which demonstrated the sense of connection that Snarky Puppy was able to create with the audience.
The group achieved an amazing balance between carefully rehearsed tightness of sound and improvisatory freedom that kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Every heart-stopping break, every jaw-dropping solo, every head-bopping groove and catchy melody kept the venue full of energy. Since every instrument was hooked up to amplifiers, the players were able to use distortion and reverb techniques to widen and exploit the timbral possibilities of their instruments. And the audience couldn’t seem to get enough of the delicious sounds they cooked up.
This concert was one of the most enjoyable performances I’ve attended in a long time. I’ve been to dozens of great concerts in my life, and dozens more after moving to Ann Arbor, but something about this show was special. Both Mama Sol and Snarky Puppy achieved an intimate connection with the crowd, despite its large size. Their grooves were electrifying, which created this beautiful, symbiotic relationship between audience and performer as energy whirred around the 3,000-seat auditorium. Afterwards, I couldn’t believe that I had been crammed into a Hill Auditorium seat for three hours. The music was so infectiously joyful that perhaps time itself got a little lost in the moment.