[26 August 2013]
It’s a fabulous Wednesday night in South Lake Tahoe and there’s a special vibe in the air. The area has been taken over in the past 48 hours by the Phish Nation, here to see its favorite band play two summer nights at Harveys Outdoor Arena for the second time in three years. Tonight’s show was one for the ages, as the band threw down a mind-blowing 36-minute “Tweezer” jam to open the show’s second set. The triumphant jam achieved instant legend status as it took the audience to a rare peak of ecstatic union with the cosmos, resulting in all kinds of meme tributes on social media ever since. The hyped up crowd floats out of Harveys on a cloud at the end of the show, ready for more action.
Some are going straight back to their hotel rooms to re-listen to the “Tahoe Tweezer” as it’s instantly known. But others are looking toward the late night schedule of aftershow parties to keep the live music going. Enter Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.
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. Its unique cosmic blend of funk, rock, acid jazz and blues shares many influences with Phish, with an energy level that’s perfect for keeping a party going into the late hours. Denson is known as a “king of the late night throwdown”, and so a good time here at the Horizon Casino is a pretty sure bet. There are few frontmen in music who can match the sax man’s combination of vocal mojo and virtuoso instrumental talent.
All fans have to do is walk a couple blocks down the street from Harvey’s, no vehicles necessary. This is part of what makes South Lake Tahoe such a splendid place for such festivities, with its centralized scene. The area has quickly surpassed Las Vegas in the minds of many music fans, with everything in walking distance as opposed to the huge strip in Sin City that’s often jammed with maddening traffic throughout any given evening. The weather is also perfect, as opposed to the triple digit summer temps in Vegas.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe played a Phish aftershow party right here in Tahoe two summers ago, although the band had recently lost longtime guitarist Brian Jordan and was not quite firing on all cylinders with a fill-in guitarist who didn’t last. It’s a different story here in 2013, with guitarist DJ Williams having cemented his position in the band over the past year and a half. It’s actually a four-band billing with one ticket gaining access to two rooms, with the Pimps of Joytime opening for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe in one room and Poor Man’s Whiskey opening for Hot Buttered Rum in another just down the hall. It’s a musical utopia tripleheader that makes this night one of the summer’s top events.
Some fans are too preoccupied with re-visiting that 36-minute “Tweezer” and sharing libations with their friends back in the hotel room to make it for the opening acts, but the serious Tiny Universe fans are in the room by 12:30 a.m. sharp when the band is due to hit the stage. That seems to be just about all ticket holders because the room is pretty jammed, as are the bar lines where the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the only microbrew being offered and therefore the popular choice.
When the band hits the stage, the fiesta is instantly re-ignited with a funky dance party appropriate for what has become an extra special occasion. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe isn’t taking any time to warm up tonight either, hitting the stage in full swing with Denson’s sax shooting sonic sparks. A moment of cognitive dissonance occurs when one looks for regular bassist Chris Stillwell and instead sees a groovy gal who looks like she might be related to Foxy Cleopatra from the Austin Powers universe holding down the low end. She’s got long wavy hair and a dynamic attack on the bass, helping the band throw down one shagadelic jam after another.
“We want to thank #phish for doing such a great job of opening tonight,” Denson jokes early on. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is picking up right where Phish left off with the high energy jams. The high spirits of the crowd are no doubt inspiring to Denson and his mates, who are known for feeding off the crowd just as Phish is. Denson and longtime trumpet player Chris Littlefield are a dynamic duo on the horns, while drummer John Staten, keyboardist David Veith and guitarist DJ Williams are totally dialed in. Denson surely remembers how the show from two years ago wasn’t the band’s normal heater and he clearly means to make up for it tonight.
“Galaxy” features an extended up-tempo groove with funky wah-wah guitar that finds the band at the peak of its power, with Denson mixing in great horn blasts in between vocals. “Take me to your place in space, I’m sick and tired of the rat race,” Denson sings in a sentiment that resonates for just about everyone on hand who sees live music as the antidote for the dystopian wage slave system that occupies most of the American job market.
“We’re usually all about the ladies, but tonight we’re gonna hook up the fellas… because sometimes we need a little help,” Denson says by way of introduction to the band’s classic “Groove On”. The song dates back to the band’s formative years and is all about that great feeling you have when you’ve really got your mojo working. It’s a perfect selection for an evening like this one, with the whole room getting down. The Impressions’ “Check Out Your Mind” is a longtime Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe staple and it hits the mark here with Denson’s socially conscious vocals and a high-powered psychedelic jam where Williams stars with his guitar work. The surprise of the evening occurs when the band launches into a groovy down tempo re-arrangement of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”, with Denson adding some jazzy flute lines in between verses. There’s definitely some mojo rising all around South Lake Tahoe tonight.
When the show ends, it’s almost 3 a.m., but the party just keeps on going on this night. Fans can walk on down the hall and catch the very end of the Hot Buttered Rum show, where the bluegrass rockers are jamming out a great “Turn on Your Lovelight” to celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday. Then there’s a Talking Heads cover band still playing across the street at the Montbleu. It seems the fun will never end on this magical night, especially not when you can walk on down to the lake for a beautiful sunrise. The local eco-friendly motto is “Keep Tahoe Blue”, but tonight fans found stickers that said “Keep Tahoe Phish’n”. It’s a fitting motto for what has quickly become one of the band’s most popular destinations, and even better with the Tiny Universe tagging along for a doubleheader. It’s a perfect combination for music fans who can’t ever get enough of a good thing.