Snarky Puppy has always been an anomaly. It’s not just their strange release format (most of their records are filmed and recorded live, in one take) or their constantly rotating 40+ member lineup. To me, the most interesting aspect of the band has been their ability to defy genre limitations at every turn. Sure, you could call them a “jazz fusion” band. But that would be to discredit their dynamic, jammed-out live performances, diverse instrumentation and features, and (perhaps most importantly) the band’s increasing appeal to listeners outside of the jazz realm. This is where Snarky Puppy excels: in remaining undefined.
My first time seeing this group was at the Metro in early 2014. I was hardly old enough to get in (the only reason I did was because my friend’s mom knew the owner of the club.) I made my way over to the far left side of the audience, and watched in awe as they fit 15 people on stage, and not only replicated the intense performances from their records, but improvised masterfully beyond them. With Michael League as their raucous conductor, Snarky Puppy weaved in and out of funk, latin, and rock tunes, bringing the energy to solemn lows and euphoric highs. I was astounded then, and it remains one of the best live shows I’ve seen to date.
Fast forward to about a week ago. I’d returned from my short stint at the Berklee College of Music (where Snarky Puppy is regular jerk-off material,) and was headed down to the Concord to catch this band once again. After an opening set by a dude who does some boring bullshit on an 8-string guitar, I was ready for an invigorating night of mind-boggling solos and mesmerizing grooves. Instead, what I got was a bunch of tired, prodigious musicians, wearily treading through played-out material. Despite a very responsive audience, the band did little more than solo routinely over their rehearsed material. Even when they were clearly supposed to be reaching those same euphoric highs, I could’ve yawned. I asked myself, what the hell went wrong? And after a bit of reflection, I think I’ve got the disheartening answer.
Quite frankly, Snarky Puppy has become a glorified cocktail jazz act. After almost 10 years of touring non-stop, experimenting where and when they could, the concept has entered the realm of predictability. It was visible in the crowd after the opening set. Where I had once seen young, hip Wicker Park kids at the Metro, I now saw old white guys with Budweisers in their hands, talking about whose solo was the most impressive. In the two and a half years since I last saw Snarky Puppy, their fanbase and style have gone from out to in. This is because they’ve fallen prey to the jazz conventions they once succeeded in avoiding: drawn out, emotionally vacant soloing, and self-assured musical comfort.
Snarky Puppy’s latest record, Culcha Vulva, is just another demonstration of their recent devitalization. Gone are the disgustingly funky drum breaks of We Like it Here, and the undeniably catchy hooks of GroundUP. Instead, they’ve tamed and whitewashed their sound, making for an album that’s deservingly dull and uninspired. The compositions are so formulaic that they belong in a classroom (preferably one at Berklee.)
The part I hate most about this is that Snarky Puppy proved me wrong. When I put Sylva on my best of 2015 list last December, I commented on the fact that “cool” music publications won’t touch them. I said that if there was a band who could walk the line between technicality and visceral energy, it was Snarky Puppy. They were supposed to be the exception, who had all this talent and knowledge but could also just play and let it feel good. Apparently, I was wrong.
Written by Preston Fulks