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Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

(14 Oct 2011: The Belly Up Tavern — Solana Beach, CA)

It’s been over a decade now since saxman Karl Denson put together his Tiny Universe to serve as a second touring and recording vehicle when his other band, The Greyboy Allstars, are on break. And this past decade has seen KDTU become one of the most consistently reliable bands on the circuit – reliable to be touring regularly and reliable to deliver super funky parties that satisfy the soul like few others can.


But 2011 has seen the band go through a transitionary phase following the departure of longtime guitarist Brian Jordan from the fold. This was sad for longtime fans as Jordan seemed the perfect guitarist for the band – a master of old school funk stylings who could also tear it up on Jimi Hendrix tunes with deep psychedelic flavor. But Jordan decided it was time to strike out on his own following 10 years of service as a shock trooper in the Tiny Universe funk squad, and it was an amiable split. Leave it to Denson however to get things back in gear quickly. Not only does he have the band firing on all cylinders again with guitarist DJ Williams, he’s got their fall tour lined up to be one of the band’s most memorable by touring behind a nightly performance of the Rolling Stones’ classic 1971 LP, Sticky Fingers. And that’s just the first set.


The Belly Up Tavern in the northern San Diego area represents a homecoming for Denson, who calls San Diego home. The club is totally packed when the band hits the stage with a high-powered “Brown Sugar” opener. The configuration of the club is a bit odd, with a relatively small dance floor and a lot of space inefficiently used on the sides so elbow room is at a premium. But the crowd thins out a bit as the set progresses, with that elbow room opening up a bit.


Denson has enlisted ace guitarist/singer Anders Osborne from New Orleans to help out with the Sticky Fingers set, as well as his friends from Slightly Stoopid. The “Brown Sugar” opener sets a vibrant tone, but it’s the next song “Sway” that finds the band settling in to that uniquely Stonesy melodic sphere. Mike Doughty from Slightly Stoopid then assists with vocals on a gorgeous rendition of “Wild Horses”, followed by his bandmate Kyle McDonald taking the vocal on a splendid delivery of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. The latter particularly benefits from the Tiny Universe’s penchant for adventurous playing, with the band extending the song’s jazzy outro for one of the evening’s best jams. The original recording features one of the most memorable sax solos in rock history and it’s a shining moment for Denson here that makes it easy to see why he selected this album to tour behind.


Another peak occurs with the hard rocking “Bitch”, which features Osborne crushing it on lead vocals and guitar. There’s also some stellar twin horn work from Denson and trumpeter Chris Littlefield that sends the energy level off the meter. Bassist Chris Stillwell stars here as well, teaming with drummer John Staten on the song’s wicked groove. Osborne also stars on vocals for “Dead Flowers”, inciting a mass sing-along on the bluesy country rock classic and then riffing with Miles on a great guitar jam that extends the song well beyond what Mick and Keith conceived. The set then closes with a sublime rendition of album closer “Moonlight Mile”, with a dreamy psychedelia enveloping the club. This set would be a satisfying show in and of itself for many, but those who know Karl Denson know he’s just getting started.


The second set features the core KDTU lineup doing what they do best, which is throwing down one scintillating psyche-funk jam after another. Set opener “Let’s Get It Together” is straight up fire, a turbo-charged groove with Denson delivering an impassioned vocal urging the people of the world to come together to help save the planet. Stillwell’s groovy counterpoint bass line has an infectious quality that instantly ignites the dance floor, with Denson then blazing one of his hottest sax solos of the night. The song could easily be an anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement and should be sent to radio immediately, where it could be a huge hit if it could just get the exposure it deserves.


“Brother’s Keeper” shines with a ‘70s soul sound fed in part by the funky organ work of keyboardist David Veith. The song’s sound is updated though with a 21st century acid jazz improv vibe that KDTU are masters of. Denson then digs deep into the well of bluesy wisdom on “Before You Get Too Old”, singing lines like “What you want you can’t always have, and what you need you can’t always understand.” Now into his early 50s, Denson’s paid his dues and holds the aura of a seasoned blues man. The jazzy funk goes deeper with Denson and Littlefield harmonizing their horn lines and Stillwell laying down another mean groove over a tight beat. The crowd has thinned out a bit now, as the dilettantes have departed and the dance floor is left to those who are in it to win it until the end.


The show doesn’t wind up until around 1:30 am and the crowd has thinned even more now, as often happens at jam rock shows where some members of the crowd clearly aren’t even expecting a second set. But if you’re looking for a three hour dance party that offers maximum value for the concert dollar, few bands will satisfy like Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.

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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