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Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

(12 Feb 2010: La Zona Rosa — Austin, TX)

It’s another Friday night in the live music capital of the world and one of the funkiest bands in the cosmos has touched down in Austin for what promises to be an early highlight of the 2010 concert year.  Whether it’s with the Greyboy Allstars or his Tiny Universe, saxman Karl Denson can always be counted on to get the good times rolling. A pioneer of the acid-jazz genre for well over a decade now, Denson has solidified his position as one of the premiere sax players on the planet. Denson blends the classic jazz skills of Branford Marsalis with the funk sensibility of Maceo Parker, bringing together the best of both worlds.


The band has been booked into the perfect venue for this show, with La Zona Rosa offering the necessary space for the assembled to have some elbow room while getting their groove on. Antone’s or Stubbs indoor room would be too small, but La Zona Rosa is just right. The Greyhounds, a local funky institution of their own, warm things up with an hour long set that gets the party started. Guitarist Andrew Trube, keyboardist Anthony Farrell and a rotating drummer play a weekly residency at the Continental Club’s upstairs Gallery room, so it’s interesting to see them stretching out in a full size club.  Farrell’s soulful crooning on Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile” turns what some might consider a fairly cheesy old pop tune into a gem. The band is clearly skilled at re-arranging classic tunes, as further evidenced by a turbo-charged version of “Whiskey River” that closes the set by putting a fresh new swing on the Willie Nelson classic.


When the Tiny Universe hits the stage, an early bonus is immediately evident as Chris Stillwell from the Greyboy Allstars is on bass. There’s just something special about Stillwell’s dynamic rhythmic attack that puts a little extra bounce in every groove. Fist bumps and high fives are exchanged amongst the crowd. The band gets going early with the appropriately titled “Funky Song”, with Denson’s vocals referencing a Sherlock Holmes mystery. “There’s something going on,” sings Denson and indeed there is – a groovy dance party.


“Freedom”, from the band’s superb 2002 album The Bridge, cranks the energy up higher as the band lays down one of their patented tunes of tightly layered funk. Unlike the Greyboy Allstars, the Tiny Universe adds trumpet player Chris Littlefield into the mix, conjuring extra jazz flavor. Ace guitarist Brian Jordan and keyboardist David Veith provide superb accents to the groove laid down by Stillwell and drummer John Staten as the tune builds in expert fashion. Denson’s lyrics about personal liberation match perfectly with music that follows George Clinton’s classic maxim of “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” Denson also adds a sweet flute solo toward the end, showing off yet another skill from his diverse bag of tricks.


The groovy goodness continues in “Dance Lesson”, with Denson leading the band through a jazzier yet still highly danceable number that features a succession of solos that come off like a gold medal run from an Olympic relay team. Denson goes first, delivering an extended sax solo that explores every sector of the groove. Jordan then throws down a smoking solo, tearing up the fretboard of his semi-hollow body guitar before passing the baton to Stillwell for a trumpet solo that lights up the night. Then it’s over to Veith for an electric organ solo that brings it home before the whole band returns to the original theme.


Denson digs deep on “Mighty Rebel”, one of the best cuts from the band’s latest album, 2009’s Brother’s Keeper. The mid-tempo groove features some reggae and afro-beat vibes, along with uplifting lyrics with lines like “A rebel in a world falling apart / You know you’ve got to rise up / The war has begun / To fight back is the only solution / And love is a gun.” The slower beat gives fans a chance to catch their breath a bit, while still keeping things ever-funky. But then the band shifts suddenly into a dissonant and exploratory section that recalls the seminal psychedelic fusion of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The horn lines seem to be winding through some sort of trippy cosmic wormhole, before coming out the other end and landing in an up-tempo groovy jam that gets the whole room moving again.


It looks like it’s just going to be one highlight after another as the band proceeds into “The Answer”, another deep but still swinging groove with Denson singing about how he can never get enough of “That funky stuff.” Stillwell introduces the next tune as a cover of The Yardbirds’ “I’m Not Talking”, a surprising bust-out which delivers yet another highlight as the band motors through the high-energy Brit-rock classic. Jordan shines, stepping up and stepping out with a shredding yet tasty solo to lead a great old school jam. The fun just keeps flowing as Denson then introduces “Grenadiers” as a tune from an old Russ Meyer flick. “It’s very entertaining if you like large breasted women,” Denson chuckles. The tune has some cinematic flavor, but you better believe it’s still funky.


The set is nearing the 90-minute mark now and when the band launches into their epic classic “The Bridge”, it becomes evident that this will be a one-set show. It’s perfectly understandable considering the circumstances. While Denson is known as “The king of the late-night throwdown,” the band is scheduled on following evening for what will surely be just that – a co-headlining gig with longtime cohorts Galactic at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, a show that will celebrate both Mardi Gras and the Saints’ historic Super Bowl win.


No one is complaining about the one-set show though, because KDTU is bringing pure heat throughout the entire set. “The Bridge” is a showcase featuring everything that makes the band the dynamic force it is – Denson’s inspiring lyrics, the mighty groove machine of the rhythm section, the funkalicious guitar of Jordan, the psychedelic organ of Veith, the tight horn lines, and the superb improvisations.


The group closes out the show with two more winners from the new album, “Shake It Out” and “Brother’s Keeper”. The first is a straight-up party number that can’t fail to light a fire, while the latter is a longer and more soulful number harkening back to early ‘70s influences. The tune provides a strong finish, as the band flows through a series of changes and another jam over the big groove with Denson and Littlefield still blowing as strong as when the night began. Afterward, it’s extremely tempting to want to hit the road to New Orleans for that next show.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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Phish aftershow parties have become something of a cottage industry in recent years and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is one of the best outfits on the planet for such duty.
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