Time flies when you’re having fun and the members of the Greyboy Allstars probably never imagined they’d still be jamming out 20 years after they gathered for an impromptu local gig right here in San Diego in support of their pal DJ Greyboy. Ace musicians all, as their name implies, the members each have other projects to preoccupy themselves with. But the dynamic quintet is just too legit to quit. Save for a switch in the drum chair, the same lineup has kept the funky good time grooves going for two decades now.
Led by charismatic saxman Karl Denson, the Greyboy Allstars helped pioneer the acid jazz improv sound that has been so widely imitated but rarely duplicated in the 21st century. Denson also tours with his Tiny Universe, while keyboardist Robert Walter tours with his 20th Congress. Guitarist Elgin Park is an in-demand Hollywood soundtrack composer and bassist Chris Stilwell dabbles in the same arena, while also pulling double duty with Denson in the Tiny Universe. Drummer and longtime compadre Aaron Redfield has replaced original drummer Zak Najor without missing a beat, helping the band continue onward as a perennial powerhouse on the national (and international) club scene.
The group’s talent and chemistry is so strong, one sometimes wonders why the band’s draw never grew past the club and theater level. But there’s something about this kind of music that is meant to be experienced in an intimate setting. And the band is going for old school intimacy here by foregoing their usual gig up the coast at the larger Belly-Up Tavern to play a pair of shows at the Casbah, which maybe holds a few hundred people tops. The Greyboy Allstars haven’t played the Casbah’s intimate confines in ten years, but it’s an appropriate throwback to celebrate their 20th year in business.
Denson is out front early, manning a raffle table with his daughter and hobnobbing with fans. DJ Greyboy himself spins inside to warm the room up and you can hear how his collection of sounds helped influence the band’s eclectic vibe back in the day. He mixes up stylish grooves from multiple genres, dabbling in everything from old soundtracks and psychedelic garage rock to ‘80s dance music and deep ‘70s funk and R&B. But the fans are clearly biding their time for the main event, and the bar is doing brisk business on National Bourbon Day.
When the band hits the stage, it’s time to let the good times roll. Things are a bit cramped at first, with the Casbah being a much smaller venue than normal for the band. But the elbow room starts to open up after a few tunes, as it usually does with people figuring out where they want to be. “Still Waiting” features Denson in dynamic frontman mode, singing a James Brown style lament for a variety of problems like losing his job and girl. It’s a fitting anthem for the recessionary times of the current era.
The band’s new Inland Emperor LP figures to be featured prominently and the fresh tunes don’t disappoint. “Diminishing Blackness” gives the group a chance to stretch out on a jazzier tune where Denson, Walter, and Park riff off each other for some sonic interplay that recalls Miles Davis’ fusion era. “Old Crow” brings a slinky psychedelic groove with the band’s inimitable chemistry starting to gel. The classic “Jackrabbit” pumps things up with Stillwell and Park laying down one of the band’s most infectious grooves, while Denson’s horn dances in the spaces between. This is the type of tune that can just blow a place up on the right night with the right crowd. Here it seems as if the audience is maybe still finding their groove, but there’s no doubt the band is ready to go.
The new LP is featured prominently in the middle section of the set. Walters’ B3 organ leads the way on the deep groove of “Profundo Grosso”, setting the table for Denson to air it out. The instrumental “Inland Emperor” sparkles with Park’s afro-beat staccato riffs over a tight groove from Redfield and Stillwell. There’s a collective syncopation that finds the quintet dialing in the x-factor for that unique Greyboy Allstars chemistry that gets the whole room synched in under the groove. “Breaking Blood” offers more of an old school funk as Denson sings and lays down some big sax solos. “Trashtruck” brings the heat with an up-tempo groove and surging organ lines from Walter that seem to signal the arrival of the galactic cavalry, or maybe just another blast from Denson’s interdimensional sax.
At the end, the band wraps it up with “Toys R Us”, one of their classic grooves that never fails to ignite the dance floor. That Greyboy chemistry has been flowing all night and this tune is another prime example of how those pieces add up to a dazzling team somehow greater than the sum of the players. The concepts of personal freedom and liberty are being severely challenged in this era of NSA surveillance scandals and attacks on freedom of the press, but musical freedom is alive and well thanks to bands like the Greyboy Allstars.