Snarky Puppy: Made to Sing and Dance Along To, No Lyrics Required

Head Arts Editor Natalie Manley and Arts Reporter Samuel Cody cover Snarky Puppy’s performance at Riviera Theatre.

By Natalie Manley and Samuel Cody

Nowadays, it takes a special group of musicians to get a crowd of over 2,000 people on their feet, screaming and cheering song after song… without uttering a single lyric. Yet Snarky Puppy—the self-proclaimed Texas-bred, New York-based, sort-of-jazz, sort-of-not quasi-collective—did exactly that during their March 31 performance at the Riviera Theatre.

The band’s Chicago show was the third on their 2023 North American tour promoting their Grammy-award-winning album Empire Central. The album, an ode to Snarky Puppy’s Dallas roots, gestures to a wide range of Southwestern musical influences, including blues, rock, soul, gospel, funk, and jazz. Performed by a 19-piece orchestra that provides no shortage of musical texture, color, juicy harmonies, and delectable solos, the album feels like a truly “collective” effort.

Despite featuring a slightly pared-down 10-member version of the band, Snarky Puppy’s live show felt similarly collaborative. The group onstage included band members Chris Bullock on woodwinds, Jay Jennings and Mike Maher on trumpet, Zach Brock on violin, Bob Lanzetti on guitar, Justin Stanton and Shaun Martin on keys, Jason Thomas on set, Nate Werth on percussion, and bandleader Michael League on bass.

It would be a disservice to both this show and the incredible talent we witnessed even before the headliner took the stage if we didn’t give our roses to the Venezuelan, (also) Grammy award-winning, instrumental group C4 Trío that opened for Snarky Puppy.

C4 is a four-piece band featuring three Venezuelan cuatro players (Edward Ramírez, Héctor Molina, and Jorge Glem) and an electric bassist (Rodner Padilla). Like Snarky Puppy, the group performed with no vocalists yet still managed to get the crowd clapping, hooting, hollering, and—by the end of their set—practically screaming.

C4’s music was like nothing like we had ever heard before. It was downright electric. The group’s unique sound was intricately percussive but also captivatingly melodic. It was unpredictable and exciting yet also catchy and accessible. More than anything else, at a time when just about all music feels akin to some other kind of music, the group’s distinctive blending of traditional Venezuelan cuatro sounds with more contemporary stylistic choices (like Padilla’s funky electric bass fills) felt truly original. “They’re not bound by the tradition,” Snarky Puppy’s Michael League said in a recent interview with NPR. “You can tell that their heads are as much in the future as they are in the past.”

Like their music, the members of C4 themselves were instantly likable, and their energy was infectious. While performing, the four instrumentalists displayed impressive musicianship and chemistry: even as each musician played their own complex lines and, at times, strummed and plucked their instruments so fast that one could no longer make out the shape of their hands, the group never seemed to step on each other’s toes.

League, who co-produced their most recent album Back to 4 and also introduced C4 before their set, said it best: despite the group’s “niche”-ness, “it is impossible to see them play and not remember them for the rest of your life.”

C4 set the bar for the night incredibly high, but, to no one’s surprise, Snarky Puppy met it with ease. Almost every musician on stage played at least two instruments during the show, with incredible tone, creativity, and skill. Each instrument added an additional layer of color and texture to the group’s sound—if the band sounded barer with nine fewer musicians, it certainly wasn’t easy to tell.

Despite having 14 albums’ worth of music to choose from, Snarky Puppy’s set was almost entirely made up of songs from Empire Central. No song’s live rendition, however, sounded even remotely similar to its recorded studio version. Each song featured something new and exciting; whether that meant launching into a gospel-style clapping session or turning a solo quote (sample) into an impromptu “This is How We Do It” jam session, Snarky Puppy made sure there was never a dull moment. The entire set was peppered with soulful, funky, genre-defying solos; tight, accented horn lines; groovy bass fills; and vibrant percussion interludes. Band members live-reacted to each other’s playing with hilarious facial expressions, respect-filled nods, and spontaneous dance moves, or by picking up their instruments and joining in on the fun—like the audience, they too were hearing much of the music performed in a new way for the first time.

There were, however, some slight letdowns—neither one of us was a fan of the groups’ rendition of “Belmont,” which they played as a tribute to the late 80s funk star and band mentor Bernard Wright, who suddenly passed away just after Empire Central was recorded. The song, which was introduced as if it were a ballad, felt cluttered and confusing (in other words, very anti-ballad), as if the musicians onstage couldn’t agree on what it was supposed to convey. Stanton’s choice of keyboard sound totally missed the mark, Werth way overdid it with the chimes, and Jennings’ mid-song flugelhorn solo—which featured aggressive articulation, growls, and screaming high notes—felt like it should have been played on a trumpet instead.

The concert also wasn’t exactly visually exciting. The musicians mostly remained in place (save for a few intermittent hip sways and head nods), wore plain-looking everyday street clothes, and stood on a stage filled with instruments and not much else. The show’s lighting was somewhat more interesting, but still rather bare-bones. Several cameras placed around the stage captured the musicians up close, projecting their playing up on a screen behind them. While it was cool to see Stanton’s fingers fly across his keyboard, or Thomas creating intricate groves using all four limbs on the drum set, we felt the projections could have been better supported with more intricate lighting design or set pieces.

Yet, without a doubt, what the concert lacked in flashy stage props, eye-catching costumes, and elaborate dance moves was easily made up for by the music. It’s no secret that none of the guys in Snarky Puppy are meant (or likely want) to be pop stars—they’re all middle-aged men who can’t dress or dance to save their lives. What they can do, however, is play the hell out of their instruments. Throughout the night, we were consistently blown away by the tightness of the horn section, the cohesiveness of the rhythm section, and the creativity of the soloists. Just about every musician on stage had at least one particularly impressive line, lick, or solo. Some, like Martin during his “This is How We Do It” jam session, were on another level entirely.

After concluding their set with a funky rendition of the Texas shuffle “RL’s,” taking a bow, and leaving the stage, Snarky Puppy came back on to perform “Lingus,” a fan favorite off their 2014 We Like It Here album and the only non-Empire Central selection of the night. As he launched into the song’s familiar syncopated chords, keys player Shaun Martin looked into the audience and yelled, “y’all better sing the hell out of this song.”

Sing the hell out of the song we did. The night concluded with some two-thousand-odd people screaming “ba-da-dat-da-daaaa” (the horn part of “Lingus”), no lyrics required.