Theme concerts sometimes can lack authenticity. So, a bit of skepticism emerged in some quarters when Carnegie Hall announced that Snarky Puppy—a nonet whose members are mostly in their 30s and have no direct experience with the 1960s—would host a show featuring protest music from, and inspired by, the decade.
That skepticism was unwarranted.
The band’s leader, bassist Michael League, has long enjoyed a close relationship with ’60s icon David Crosby, who was on hand for the New York show—and in fighting form. The concert’s other guest performers, though also in their 30s, turned out to be a group of latter-day dissenters.
The Jan. 25 concert was part of a 10-week citywide celebration—“The ’60s: The Years That Changed America”—intended to draw links between that era, broadly defined, and the present day. At Carnegie Hall, no one brought that connection into sharper focus than mandolinist Chris Thile.
In “Falsetto,” a masterfully wrought dart aimed directly at the administration of President Donald Trump, Thile—a vibrant stage presence who hosts public radio’s Live From Here—coyly took the president to task for the deterioration of America’s international relations. More to the point, he criticized a growing intolerance at home, slipping in and out of falsetto as he imagined how the president might threaten a straight-talking entertainer: “Don’t tell it like it is/Entertainers better keep the entertainment light.”
Paralleling that critique, Thile, in his second number, took on Richard Nixon—whom Trump had praised—through the words and music of Stevie Wonder’s post-Watergate accusation, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” Reaching back even further, the singer skewered the military establishment in a gritty rendition of Bob Dylan’s 1963 “Masters Of War,” driving home his points with emotive singing and effusive improvisations that wrung the most out of his small fretboard.
Marvin Gaye was the muse for British vocalist Laura Mvula, who mined the Gaye songbook and, to a degree, his style in a sensuous but stinging version of “Inner City Blues.” As the piece unfolded, her languorous voice took on a sharper edge, playing off League’s bass and transforming the tune’s signature riff into a moment of heightened communication—one that no doubt reflected their collaboration on Snarky Puppy’s 2016 Family Dinner, Volume 2 (Decca).
Providing some contrast was Malian singer Fautmola Diawara. Decked out in a flamboyant red dress and hat, she revealed a kinetic style that matched the pulsating music. “Mousso,” which touted the power of women, and “Unite,” a plea for peace, introduced West African rhythms to the mix, allowing the band to stretch and sparked some dazzling choreographic interplay between Diawara and Mvula. The shimmying and shaking onstage grew so animated that it brought the audience to its feet.
For its part, Snarky Puppy had kicked off the concert with three of its tunes: “Kite,” from 2014’s We Like It Here (GroundUP), and, from 2016’s Culcha Vulcha (GroundUP), “Semente” and “Grown Folks.” As instrumentals, the tunes’ relationship to the evening’s theme was less explicit than that of the program’s other material; League joked that the three tunes were notable for “protesting vocalists.” Still, they set the scene, evoking a fusion vibe with smooth turns by Justin Stanton on Rhodes piano and Shaun Martin on synthesizer.
Beyond the opening tunes, Snarky Puppy functioned largely as a brilliantly equipped house band. With League leading the cues, the horn section of Chris Bullock on saxophones and Jay Jennings and Mike “Maz” Maher on trumpets—Stanton doubled on that instrument as well—proved as adept at delivering a tightly wound punch as shaping a sonorous phrase. Stanton, Martin, Bob Lanzetti on guitar, Larnell Lewis on drums and Nate Werth on percussion provided color and a cushion throughout.
In one of the evening’s revelations, Maher stepped out of the horn section for a vocal on “These Words.” Drawn from his latest album, Idealist (GroundUP), the tune offered commentary on music and politics, in the process building a profile for Maher as an estimable balladeer.
But in the end, the night belonged to Crosby. Sporting a loose black shirt and rust-colored knit hat, he appeared onstage to raucous applause halfway through the two-hour set. After a few prickly remarks, he led a rousing “Long Time Gone,” which he wrote in the wake of Sen. Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination.
But Crosby seemed determined not to play the rock star. After “Long Time Gone,” he laid back, contributing an unobtrusive rhythm guitar until again taking center stage for the regular program’s penultimate number, his 1971 commentary on the anonymous power elite, “What Are Their Names.” That piece naturally segued into the closer, Stephen Stills’ cautionary “For What It’s Worth,” which in turn invited the evening’s single encore, Neil Young’s unforgiving “Ohio.”
If any bridging of the generation gap was needed, “Ohio” was the vehicle—calling to mind today’s police killings of unarmed civilians as readily as it did the National Guard’s 1970 killing of four students on the campus of Kent State University. With Lanzetti nailing the opening guitar figure, Crosby, his voice no worse for a lifetime of wear, led the assembled crowd—artist and audience alike—as they echoed the close Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young harmonies of yesteryear, hammering home the refrain: “Four dead in Ohio.” DB