Few bands have toured more relentlessly over the past 15 years than the intrepid travelers of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Saxman and bandleader Karl Denson has become an icon in the jam and funk scene, constantly popping up for peak moments at festivals and late-night parties. The band is criss-crossing the country again in 2014, building a wave of groovy momentum behind their first new album in five years.
Denson has mixed things up in recent years with Tiny Universe tours that have featured material from the Rolling Stones, the Beastie Boys, and Ray Charles. He continues to lead the Greyboy Allstars as well, while also now serving in the horn section with his fellow San Diegans in Slightly Stoopid. But the Tiny Universe is charting a fresh new course through the space-funk continuum in 2014 with the release of New Ammo. It’s the band’s first album since 2009’s Brother’s Keeper, and the first since the 2011 departure of longtime guitarist Brian Jordan. The album has been winning raves, thanks to how it captures the band’s live energy. New guitarist D.J. Williams is blending in like a longtime member of the crew, and it’s an album with a genuine flow.
KDTU is as close to a house band as you’ll find at the Belly Up Tavern, playing Denson’s hometown venue multiple times every year. But no two shows are ever the same when you have a band that can stretch out the sonic landscape like these tone scientists can. So the usual crowd was on hand to witness the latest acid jazz adventures of the Tiny Universe.
If Denson is the Captain Kirk of this intergalactic class groove vessel, then bassist Chris Stillwell is Scottie, the engineer whose funky low-end grooves always keep the band’s engines running smoothly. Keyboardist David Veith is the band’s Commander Chekov, able to chart bold new courses through psychedelic space. Trumpeter Chris Littlefield is like Spock or Riker, the first officer always at his captain’s side. Williams is akin to Sulu, keeping the ship on course and able to crank up the warp speed drive for interstellar jamming at a moment’s notice. Drummer Max McVeety gets a red shirt as the newest member of the band, but he seems poised for officer status.
The band was joined for much of the night by Denson’s mates in the Slightly Stoopid horn section, with Andy Geib on trombone and Daniel Delacruz on sax and vocals. The Tiny Universe cranked things up early with a hot jam on “New Ammo”, where Williams was tearing up the fretboard. The song took on extra energy with the four-part horn section and the band was clearly ready for the evening’s mission.
The venue’s tiny dance floor was overcrowded as usual early on, making some wish that the Fillmore would extend its elite brand to San Diego County. But it eventually loosened up a bit as it almost always does when attrition occurs. Everyone was getting into the groove by the time the band moved on to “Groove On”, a Tiny Universe classic about getting your mojo working that always hits the spot. The Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot” was another winner, with Denson playing the melody on jazz flute at first. The band recorded their own instrumental version on the new album, but offered an extra treat here with Delacruz on vocals in a dedication to the late great MCA that ignited the room.
The Tiny Universe proceeded to warp speed with “The Duel”, a turbo-charged tune from the new album that sounds like a soundtrack to a fight from an Austin Powers movie. They brought the jam down a bit to feature Geib on a sublime trombone breakdown, before revving back up for a big finish. Other peak moments from the sonic journey included a deep jam on the soulful “Satisfied” that featured some dazzling jazz flute and spacey wah-wah guitar. A smoking take on the ever-popular fan favorite “Front Money” had fans hollering approval. Everyone was getting down on the good foot, with the horn section blasting laser shots of funk all over.
Passengers were returned to terra firma with an encore of the White Stripes’ zeitgeist anthem “Seven Nation Army”, a song the band has been owning of late with their instrumental rendition. The tour is just getting going though, so look for the Tiny Universe at clubs around the cosmos this year.