Monday, June 21, 2010

This Year, Pop's Day Was Also Pup's Day

I've sung the praises of Snarky Puppy, the band that originated in Denton and has since gone on to take generous swaths of the country by storm, many times in these pages, and I've been fortunate enough to see a couple of live shows from the band as well. But in the past year, I've had to miss every one of their shows for one reason or another, and as I said last week, upon hearing of a free show last night in Arlington, there was no way I would miss them this time.

Snarky Puppy has always had a rotating cast of characters, led by bassist/principal composer Michael League. While the group got its start in Denton, several of the members have relocated to Brooklyn in recent years. So while it's not unheard of to have 18 people on stage during a Snarky concert, tonight's group was a septet. Call it "stripped-down" or call it "lean and mean," but it worked; this was as enjoyable of a show as any that I'd seen when the stage was bursting at the seams with people.

The band has released three CDs, with another (a recorded-live CD/DVD set entitled "Tell Your Friends") in the can--being picked up by Ropeadope Records (home of DJ Logic, Marco Benevento and many others) means that the fourth CD will have a much wider distribution, but it also means that those of us who weren't fortunate enough to snag one of the few advance copies will have to wait until September for its release.

Last night's concert was a good mix of the older stuff ("Alma" and "Intelligent Design" from album #2, The World Is Getting Smaller, along with "Loose Screws" and "34 Klexma" [the latter featuring Clay Pritchard's tenor sax in place of the violin on the recording] from 2008's Bring Us the Bright), the rare cover (League's take on Jaco Pastorius' "Continuum," which mixed the original ballad style with funky underpinnings) and enough of a preview of the new CD that left me counting the days until September. The new tune ("Flood," "Slow Demon" and something announced as the CD's opening track: "Whitecap," one of the most infectious Snarky tunes ever) were, save for one occasional texture change (League swapping his electric bass for the keyboard variety), exactly what one might expect from the next stage of Snarky's development: the dance and rock elements turned up a few notches, but everything else--catchy tunes, strong jazz sensibilities, virtuosic soloing--fully intact.

With the smaller group, it was also easier for individuals to stand out. Keyboardist Shaun Martin practically stole the show with solos ranging from clever (the quote of an entire phrase of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" while using a harmonica patch was a nice touch) to frenetic; dueling guitarists Mark Lettieri and Chris McQueen added a variety of colors and chops; it was great to see Pritchard with the Pups again (and what was that crazy pedal he was using on "Intelligent Design" that made him sound all synth-like?), and everything was held together in fine, funky fashion by League and drummer Robert "Sput" Searight, with percussionist Nate Werth providing tasty embellishments all night.

The band is on a bit of a vacation until the CD comes out, but they said they'll be hitting the DFW area again sometime in October. You can bet I'll be there. (And until the CD comes out, a few tracks from Tell Your Friends are available for streaming at the band's MySpace page.)

You'll love it at (the) Levitt*: This concert also marked my first visit to the Levitt Pavilion, a new outdoor concert venue in the Founders Plaza area of downtown Arlington (yes, there is such a thing; it's located on Abram St. roughly between Cooper and Collins, and it's pretty well-kept, especially in comparison to the seen-better-days vibe of Division St. just a few blocks to the north). It's a very nice space with options for lawn seating, a few rows of folding chairs, and a short wall that makes a sort of "V" along the back. The Levitt, which opened last summer, is committed to sponsoring at least 50 free outdoor concerts every year.

When the pavilion official came onstage to welcome everyone, she commented that this was "the only Levitt Pavilion in the area," and I chuckled to myself a bit, because I had no idea that this was not the only one of its kind. But indeed, there is a growing family of Levitt Pavilions built by the foundation set up by the late philanthropist and outdoor music fan Mortimer Levitt, who built the first one in Connecticut in 1974; others have followed in Pasadena, L.A. and Memphis. The Arlington Levitt is indeed the first one in Texas, and from the looks of things, they're doing a wonderful job.

*No harm in borrowing the slogan of a defunct furniture chain in an effort to make a bad pun, right?

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