There’s a sense of cognitive dissonance in the cool San Francisco air on this Tuesday evening, but it’s based on the longtime harmonic excellence of one of the modern music scene’s hardest working players. Saxophonist Karl Denson is celebrating his 60th birthday with a performance at the Fillmore with his band Tiny Universe, a most appropriate venue for the occasion considering how many stellar shows Denson has delivered here since the turn of the millennium.
But wait, Karl D is 60 years old?! Sure his goatee has gone grey in recent years, but it’s still tough to wrap one’s head around what seems like some kind of temporal anomaly in Earth’s musical time-space continuum. The fact of the matter however is that Denson has been rocking the planet with his funky acid jazz jams for over twenty years and was apparently a little older than he seemed when he first hit the scene. His youthful vibe has long belied his actual age, testimony to the power of such groovy music as a fountain of youth.
Michael Kang of the String Cheese Incident commented on this anomaly when Denson and Tiny Universe bandmate Chris Littlefield sat in with SCI in Colorado three years ago during the band’s 2013 New Year’s Eve run. The Tiny Universe Horns were helping SCI celebrate their 20-year anniversary as a band and it was around 20 years since Denson had first collaborated with them. “He hasn’t aged a day,” Kang noted from the stage with tongue only partly in cheek, for Denson has come to seem like some kind of timeless musical superhero (an image hinted at in Denson’s latest tour promo art depicting him as a Viking warrior.) Denson’s status as a musician’s musician only grew in 2014 when he was called up to the English premiere league to become the sax man for none other than the Rolling Stones.
Seeing Denson jam out with the Stones on their giant video screens at San Diego’s Petco Park in 2015 only enhanced his larger than life status, yet he seems to take it all in stride. Far from one to rest on his laurels, Denson has continued to tour relentlessly with his Tiny Universe and the Greyboy Allstars. He usually plays a December holiday show in his hometown of San Diego, but a special occasion like this deserves a special venue, and there’s no venue in popular music that can outclass the Fillmore.
The fact that Denson turns 60 on this same day that beloved Rebel Alliance leader Leia Organa (aka renowned actress Carrie Fisher) has passed away at the age of 60 herself also presents some deep insight on what a difference lifestyle can make in human longevity. Fisher lived a life of well-publicized chemical excess, while Denson looks like someone who doesn’t miss many workouts. Millions felt a tremor in the Force at the news of Fisher’s untimely departure from the planet, while the Fillmore can only entertain about 1,200 lucky souls for this show. But it feels like Denson’s birthday show is synchronically aligned to generate some balance in the Force here at the end of 2016.
There are a number of special guests on the bill, while others are rumored up to a potential Keith Richards appearance (a longshot for sure, but not inconceivable.) Keyboardist Ivan Neville appears early to collaborate on “My Baby Likes to Boogaloo”, helping crank up the dance party as does percussionist Mike Dillon who sits in all night. A charged rendition of ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” rocks the house with some hot slide from guitarist Seth Freeman, with Denson explaining the band has just recently learned the song while playing a run of shows with ace guitarist Jimmy Herring. Denson then references his time with the Rolling Stones, noting that the band has now added a couple of Stones covers to the repertoire as intro to a gorgeous rendition of “Sway”, a deep cut from 1971’s Sticky Fingers. This is where the show starts to take on a magical vibe as Denson and the Tiny Universe tap into a timeless classic rock energy, with Neville (a former X-Pensive Wino bandmate of Keith Richards) adding some extra flair.
The birthday party goes to a higher level still when Denson references his collaborations with members of another of rock’s most influential bands, San Francisco’s own Grateful Dead. Denson has played with the Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir on occasion, and while Lesh is off in Hawaii this week, the GD family represents here with frequent Lesh collaborators Jackie Greene and Luther Dickinson hitting the stage on guitars. Denson speaks of how he didn’t really get the Grateful Dead at first, including when Tiny Universe would often land on festival bills with bands that leaned toward classic rock and bluegrass. He humorously notes hitting it off with Dickinson at such a festival when they bonded over not playing bluegrass.
The joking ceases the moment the band launches into the Dead’s “Viola Lee Blues” for an incendiary jam that finds Greene and Dickinson tearing it up over a smoking groove from the Tiny Universe. It’s a rocking affair that pays more than just mere homage to the Dead as Greene and Dickinson play with a fire that seems to conjure vintage Dead jams from the ‘60s, yet with an urgency that makes this version a keeper. The Tiny Universe is clearly comfortable in this realm, having jammed with Lesh when he sat in with the band at his Terrapin Crossroads club back in September.
That experience seeps through again when Denson introduces the Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine” as the song he decided is his favorite number by the band. The Tiny Universe shows why with an exploratory melodic jam that reaches heights the Dead rarely did on this particular tune. Bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Alan Evans push the groove with some fabulous playing here while keyboardist David Veith helps conjure the higher cosmic tones with his psychedelic organ work. Greene is a major asset again, showing how far he’s developed on lead guitar over the years as he and Denson and guitarist D.J. Williams riff off each other on a sensational jam.
Another guest appearance boosts the latter part of the show when several members of Slightly Stupid join the festivities. Denson has been touring with the San Diego-based funk-punk-reggae-rock band throughout the current decade, so it’s a natural collaboration. A deeply groovy rendition of the uplifting “Express Yourself” finds the full house getting down again, with Denson and Littlefield adding some jazzy accents to the funk. Denson and Littlefield continue to go off with hot horn work on “Funky on My Back” and “Some Skunk Funk” as the band works out on some of their classic high energy acid jazz stylings.
It’s been a show with far more covers than usual, as is often the case for special holiday performances (and milestone birthdays indeed count.) The encore continues the trend as Dickinson returns to help the band for a groovy take on the Stones’ “Live With Me”, raising the spirit of the ‘60s once again. Then it’s Greene back into the mix for a charged rendition of Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids”.
There are few artists in modern music who can traverse as many sonic landscapes as Karl Denson and this show has been testament to the many musical supernovas that Denson’s Tiny Universe can inhabit. Seeing Denson rock a two-and-a-half-hour show like this on a night when the rebel forces have lost one of their greatest leaders provides a needed boost to those who subscribe to the Jedi and rock ‘n’ roll religions.