2014 was a banner year for saxman Karl Denson and so it was appropriate to close it out the right way with a hometown birthday show. Spirits were thus high at the Belly Up for multiple reasons. The Greyboy Allstars traditionally play a year-end show in San Diego, and last year’s winter solstice show had been a barnburner. But now it was Denson’s 58th (!) birthday and he was closing out a banner year. Tickets were gobbled up and there were even stragglers with fingers in the air outside on this chilly night.
Denson leads two bands and started the year off by releasing New Ammo, a strong new album from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. The band toured widely, included a stop at Jazzfest where Denson sat in for some smoking jams with Cyril Neville and his Royal Southern Brotherhood. But Denson’s long strange trip took a significant detour in the fall when he got a call from Mick Jagger. The Stones needed an ace sax player for their fall tour in Australia and New Zealand after longtime sideman Bobby Keys fell ill (and passed away in December, may he rest in peace) Denson’s old pal Lenny Kravitz had made a recommendation and that was all it took. Karl D was being called up to the premiere league.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s fall tour had to be cancelled, but how often do you get a call to jet on over to the old world and jam with the Stones? Tiny Universe’s fall 2011 tour had featured nightly performances of the Stones’ classic Sticky Fingers album in its entirety, so Denson was more than ready. But he’d been playing this stuff for years, citing Keys’ work with the Stones as an influence in his early years. The tour was by all accounts a major success and now it was time to get back to business stateside.
Local fans teamed up to make a huge birthday card for Denson, which could be signed at the coat check area upon entering the venue. It had hundreds of signatures and Denson would proudly display the sign on stage throughout the show. The venue even had Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale on tap, much to the delight of beer drinkers who find the venue’s normal selection to be quite subpar for a region renowned for its craft beer industry.
There was a bit of cognitive dissonance in the air with the concept of Denson being 58 years old, because onlookers would be hard pressed to make such a guess. The vibe recalled his guest appearance a year earlier with the String Cheese Incident in Colorado for their New Year’s Eve run. String Cheese Incident was celebrating their 20 year anniversary and mandolinist Michael Kang remarked that it was also the Greyboy Allstars’ 20 year anniversary and a similar time period since the band had first teamed up with Denson.
“He hasn’t aged a day,” Kang said only half-joking. Greying goatee aside, it’s hard to discern much aging in Denson in the 21st century. Fans could rightfully wonder if Denson has mutant healing powers like Wolverine of the X-Men, or perhaps Middle Earth lineage like Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Such heritage wouldn’t be shocking, but the most logical explanation for Denson’s youthful demeanor at such an advanced age has to be the music. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh are both in their 70s, but they sure don’t look it and there seems to be increasing evidence that live music is indeed a youthful elixir for the soul.
The room was completely jammed when the show started, an ongoing problem with sold out shows at the Belly Up. Denson seemed to sense this and delivered some jazz flute on a laid back jam that gave the crowd a chance to settle in before bringing the energy up with “Happy Friends”. The dance floor started to loosen up a bit during the perennially scintillating “Jackrabbit”, with bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Aaron Redfield laying down one of the band’s most dynamic grooves. Denson was clearly jazzed throughout the night and seemed to have a particularly festive interplay going with guitarist Elgin Park and keyboardist Robert Walter.
One of the evening’s most unique moments occurred toward the end of the first set when an exploratory psychedelic jam morphed into an instrumental segue into the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle”. It’s an inherently timely song for birthday shows or New Year’s Eve runs and this night had both vibes going as the band jammed on the classic tune about time slipping into the future toward a spiritual revolution that will save the planet. There was an electricity in the air that charged the room and carried over into the next song where Park and Stillwell switched instruments for a super funky groove.
The dance floor opened up in the second set, as it almost always does at the Belly Up when the muggles who were only expecting one set filter out at halftime. This provided more space for those fans inclined to musical wizardry that goes deep into the night. Denson flashed the giant birthday card to the crowd to a round of applause and then got back down to the business of kicking out the jams. There was one tune that featured a deep bluesy groove similar to Jimi Hendrix’s “Who Knows” that had the room deeply engaged. It may not quite have been the Band of Gypsys classic per se, but was close enough to conjure some of the vibes from that legendary group’s New Year’s Eve 1969 shows.
The Greyboy Allstars’ classic “Still Waiting” hit the mark, with Denson working his considerable mojo over the old school James Brown style groove. The band’s chemistry was flowing here as Walters’ keys synched in with the rhythm section to set the table for Denson to blow it out once again. “Reasons” closed the set with a high-powered groove devoted to good love that saw the band stretching out on a big jam to close the show with the same energy that had infused the entire evening. The band was still having a blast and the crowd was loving every minute as the clock approached 1 am on a birthday party to remember.