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The Greyboy Allstars

(29 Sep 2012: The Belly Up Tavern — Solana Beach, CA)

Too many bands have been skipping the San Diego region this year in favor of gigs in Los Angeles. But you don’t have to worry about that with the Greyboy Allstars. Bandleader and saxman extraordinaire Karl Denson calls San Diego home, so the “Whale’s Vagina,” as fictional newsman Ron Burgundy once dubbed the town, will always be on the tour schedule for these acid jazz masters.

Some have come to know Denson better for his other band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, but it was the Greyboy Allstars with whom he first pioneered the acid jazz sound that has become such a favorite of groove fans across the nation. GBA doesn’t tour as much as KDTU these days, so it’s always a treat to catch the boys back in action with the old school sound. The two bands have much in common, but their complimentary sounds vary just enough to make you want to see both bands whenever they come around.

It’s a Saturday night, so the crowd is ready to party and so is the band, of course. Bassist Chris Stillwell is even in a uniform of sorts, wearing grey Converse All-Stars with grey jeans and a grey pinstriped shirt. The band has some fresh material from an upcoming album and the new “Breaking Blood” is an early highlight that gets the crowd moving and grooving with a hard-edged funky groove that recalls the Meters. Denson lays down his sax and picks up the mic for some bluesy vocals that recall the l Uptown Ruler himself (legendary Meters vocalist Cyrille Neville.) Then he picks up the sax to wail over the hot groove from Stillwell, drummer Aaron Redfield, guitarist Elgin Park, and keyboardist Robert Walter. Each of these guys is an absolute ace, hence the band’s moniker. But they’re not just great soloists. The Greyboy Allstars are a cohesive unit where the instruments blend together to create a dynamic groove machine that demonstrates Jedi mastery of the tone sciences.

The classic “Jackrabbit” lights a fuse, with Stillwell laying down a popping bass line that always gets an audience jumping around. The song is quintessential Greyboy Allstars with its blend of active bass, classic funk guitar, groovy electric piano and smoking horn lines. The band’s popularity has held steady for over a decade now, and it’s always a treat to catch such groove masters in action at an intimate club. There’s a transcendent ecstatic quality to the music that mixes a retro James Brown-style funk with a futuristic space groove vibe, and you always come out the other side feeling spiritually renewed.

Denson is also a master of tapping into the blues that can weigh a man down regarding a lost job or a girl that got away and turning such feelings into a funky catharsis. Such is the case on “Still Waiting”, where it it doesn’t matter if the girl comes back because everyone is going to get down. A hot take on Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” keeps the party going as well, as Denson and company take MJ’s shiny, poppy single and transform it with an old school funk arrangement.

DJ Greyboy himself spins during the setbreak, keeping the funky tunes going so that it almost feels like the show never stopped. The Belly Up also provides a convenient smoking section out back where much of the crowd mingles during the break. It’s another beautiful balmy night in San Diego, so it’s nice to be able to step out for some fresh air (hint hint, House of Blues.)

The band gets down to business in the second set with a jazzy jam where Denson lays down some flute that recalls Ron Burgundy’s stellar work at the jazz club in Anchorman. A high energy, superfunk groove kicks the set into overdrive with Walter laying down some great organ work over a snazzy beat. The new “M&M” proves to be another winner from the impending album, with Denson using the flute in a jammier mode over a tight groove from Stillwell and Redmond. The classic “Happy Friends” may well sum up the night, as it’s impossible to find anyone who isn’t smiling during this tune. The song moves into a monster jam that delves deep into some late ‘60s-style psychedelia, with Park delivering some melty licks that seem to conjure Jerry Garcia at the Fillmore back in the day.

The encore features Park and Stillwell switching axes and continuing to crush it, while Denson goes back to the flute for a big funky jam that extends into the 15-20 minute range. It’s getting into the one a.m. hour but no one seems ready to go home, not when you’ve got San Diego’s de facto house band laying down such groovy, jazzy jams. Now if only San Diego had its own Fillmore.

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.

Greyboy All Stars - Live at the Belly Up Tavern
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