Grammy-winning modern funk and jazz juggernaut Snarky Puppy grace Columbus once again at the Park Street Saloon on Wednesday, May 11 at 8:00pm (tickets here). Fresh off the guest-laden carnival of Family Dinner Vol. 2, the large band has regrouped with the darker, grittier Culcha Vulcha just out last week. Charlie Hunter, shining star of avant-funk guitar (whose last record, which blew me away, I wrote about here), has, after a long drought, become a regular visitor to our town again with the advent of Natalie’s and he’s along for the ride as a special guest. It’s not too much to ask for an opening set and his sitting in with the headliners as he did on Family Dinner Vol. 2, right? Locals Safety Squad whose debut record came out recently (and was reviewed by JC mastermind Andrew Patton here) play a 6:00-7:30 pre-show next door at Park Street Patio. For more on the headliners including videos, read below.
Snarky Puppy is a true collective. Individual members have experience with artists from Aretha Franklin to Kirk Franklin, Snoop Dogg to Corinne Bailey Rae, Brian Blade to Toby Keith, and a slate of solo and side projects (keyboardist Cory Henry’s last appearance at Woodlands Tavern brought the house down). No matter how bright those ancillary projects glow, they always bring lessons and fresh energy back to the fold. As a group when they align behind other artists as a house band, they find and draw out exactly what the song needs while still sounding exactly like themselves. It’s a balancing act that’s almost impossible to pull off; in the last 50 years of pop music, I can think of two acts who did it as well, The Band and The Sadies.
That house band action was captured to fine effect on February’s Family Dinner Vol. 2. Following the first volume which brought they Grammys and a higher national profile, they cast their net wider and deeper. The two tracks with Peruvian singer Susana Baca are models of sensual restraint. “Molino Moreno” (also featuring tour guest Charlie Hunter on insinuating, sexy guitar) slips from one groove into the next on low-key percussion sliding from her voice into his guitar like the same wine being poured into different vessels. The gorgeous “Fuego Y Agua” layers subtle drumming and handclaps around folk-piano and her voice with horns rising over it to whisper in your ear. The raunchier “Liquid Love” with Chris Turner works a slow build into a horns-and-hi-hat whirlwind of ecstasy. “I Remember” with KNOWER and Jeff Coffin is speedy, glittery funk driven by a lightness on the keys and a thick, rushing beat on the drums.
As good as all of that is, there’s a sense with the instrumental records that Snarky Puppy dig into themselves and stretch muscles that don’t get used in the same way when they fall into line behind someone else’s song. Culcha Vulcha is the best example yet of that simpatico interplay. Much of the showy fusion fillagree and fireworks get stripped away, leaving these perfect inkwash visions that let the melody and the groove come to the fore. The slinky, gnarled “Semente” is a favorite of mine on the record so far with its off-kilter hipshake and horn riff that bores into your skull. The thick playground-funk bass that starts off “Grown Folks” soon splinters into something slower and sultry, Memphis Horns over an electric piano turning itself inside out. “Jefe” moves with a confident, smiling menace, guitars and horns catching fire while the house of keys, bass and drums shakes and shudders, a groove that goes in four directions at once but whose ostentatiousness feels like a shimmy with a switchblade in its boot.
With new material as strong as the two records – so far! – this year, I can’t wait to see what they bring us live.