Words + Photos by Anthony Bauer
Last December, Vulfpeck released the stellar Hill Climber (via its own Vulf Records) right before the end of the year and the band hit the road in 2019 for a handful of dates in support of its release. While no full-fledged proper tour happened, the tour seemed to move full steam ahead with all roads leading to their biggest show yet: headlining a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. Along for the ride and kicking things off for the night was fellow Vulf Records bandmates The Fearless Flyers, who released The Fearless Flyers II earlier this past May that created a night of “Olympic Levels of Funk” that I’m sure Madison Square Garden has never seen before.
Some people may consider certain bands a “supergroup” when they contain members of other popular bands, and The Fearless Flyers may not come up in that conversation but they really should. The band includes members of Vulfpeck, Snarky Puppy, and the incomparable Nate Smith and any band with Nate Smith in it should automatically be considered a supergroup from the get-go. After 2018’s The Fearless Flyers, we wondered if we were going to see another collection of songs from them and were extremely happy when The Fearless Flyers II was announced and released earlier this year. While the band doesn’t tour much, it makes any live show of theirs that much more special knowing how rare it is, and this was no exception.
The band had their signature guitar stands and stood in a line close to the edge of the stage with Smith’s bass drum, snare, and hi-hat. They were firing on all cylinders and they were going so fast at one point Smith dropped a drum stick, picked it up and somehow didn’t miss a beat while Joe Dart’s classic head bobbing and Cory Wong’s insanely fluid playing and Mark Lettieri trademark cool were all happening at the same time. Besides being the only gig they played in all of 2019, what also made this so special was just how much fun they were having playing. The crowd was going wild when they were playing, and even off to the side stage you can see the other members of Vulfpeck dancing and grooving along with the band as they tore through their set. One surprise was a sighting from Eddie Barbash (from John Batiste and Stay Human) who came out and helped out on a few songs to elevate their sound even more, which had everyone cheering. We’re thankful that bands include moments like that makes shows of this magnitude so much more special.
After the absolutely scorching opening set from The Fearless Flyers, Vulfpeck triumphantly took to the stage one by one to a smattering of cheers and applause like I’ve never heard before at MSG (and let’s not forget about the special shoutout for Joe Dart, on the Joe Dart bass). The band jumped into “Animal Spirits” and “Cory Wong” off of 2016’s The Beautiful Game that saw the crowd clapping along within seconds of the song being played. Their passionate fanbase was on full display from the start of their set to the end of it by dancing, singing, grooving and moving along with every note they played. This put the band at ease and you would have never known it was their first time playing the legendary Madison Square Garden as they were so comfortable it honestly sounded like they’ve been playing there for years.
One of the coolest things about their stage setup was that it was a mocked-up living room which included the actual furniture from the basement where the band formed over 10 years ago. Frontman Jack Stratton mentioned that the furniture was flown in for the show, which gave the stage a relaxed feel. During songs where special guests were not playing, they would sit down on the couch and just relax while the rest of Vulfpeck did their thing. It was a brilliant set up and even when the band ran around and switched instruments throughout the night, it didn’t feel like it was a stage at all, rather feeling like they were hanging out at someone’s house. Stratton even took the time to explain to the crowd about ‘the expedition’ they took to get to MSG, recalling all the venues they’ve played in New York City throughout the years. “I specialize in everything. I get Tony Robbins results at TJMaxx prices” proclaimed Stratton in the beginning of the story, and huge thanks to fellow Vulfpeck fan & YouTube user Michael Mccolgan who captured the whole entire speech which you can watch here.
Being that this was such a massive show for the band, they brought along a staggering amount of special guests including Nate Smith, Chris Thile (from Live From Here fame), Antwaun Stanley, and Dave Koz to name just a few. With all of these special guests, this is where the show had some of its best moments and truly shined with everyone on stage having the biggest grin on their face the entire time. It was almost as if everyone kept looking at each other like, “Is this really happening?! Is this real life right now?!” A perfect example of this was during “1612” off of 2014’s Fugue State EP, where Stanley was running around the stage like a madman and had everyone singing the words back to him, including 14,000 plus screaming the signature “FRANK SINATRA!” lyric. Even though the stage at MSG is so massive, it was during moments like that where it felt like the band was back in their basement making music with their friends and having the time of their life doing it.
For their biggest show yet, they didn’t shy away from crowd participation either an at all got the crowd involved wherever they could. Whether it was getting everyone to clap along to a song or shine their phone flashlight, the best use of crowd participation was during “Back Pocket” off of 2015’s Thrill of the Arts, where the first half of the song saw the band lead the crowd into a massive sing-along, which eventually ended with the full band jumping back in and turning it into a full-fledged jam. Whether you know the song from their album or from the iPhone commercial, it was amazing to hear everyone inside the venue passionately sing along to every word.
The band did not shy away from showing their appreciation for the situation they were in, headlining a sold-out MSG and having a ton of their friends be there to take part in the whole thing. Like many other bands out on the road these days, Vulfpeck is a band that needs to be experienced in a live setting to truly grasp the full level of what they are capable of. While this MSG show was the end of their 2019 dates, let’s hope they announce a proper tour in 2020 so we get to experience seeing them live again as the world is most certainly a better place with Vulfpeck in it.
PS – special shoutout to the stage setup which included a Joe DiMaggio jersey hanging on one of the walls, which was a nice callback to their song “1 for 1, Joe DiMaggio.” We see what you did there guys. Oh, and can someone make sure Joe Dart’s neck is okay? At times during the extreme and monumental levels of funk, it almost appeared as if Darts head was going to fly off his neck with so much bobbing around.
Find a full gallery + setlist from openers Fearless Flyers as well as Vulfpeck below.
Fearless Flyers setlist:
1. Ace of Aces
2. Introducing The Fearless Flyers
3. Flyers Direct
5. Simon F15
7. Lost My Treble Long Ago (Vulfpeck cover)
8. Hero Town (with Eddie Barbash)
9. Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder cover)
2. Animal Spirits
3. Cory Wong
5. Daddy, He Got A Tesla (with Nate Smith)
6. Smile Meditation
7. Running Away
8. Baby I Don’t Know
9. 1612 (with Antwaun Stanley)
10. Funky Duck (with Antwaun Stanley)
11. Aunt Leslie
12. Wait For The Moment
13. Back Pocket (started out acoustic with a sing along)
15. Christmas in LA
16. Dean Town
17. Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together (with Antwaun Stanley)
18. It Gets Funkier IV