Karl Denson's Tiny Universe Get Down to Rise Up at the Fillmore

Photo: Robbie Jeffers / Courtesy of Calabro Music Media

Karl Denson's funky dance parties have been a regular occurrence at the Fillmore over the past two decades and a great new tradition is now growing, with Tiny Universe returning for late December shows for the third time in four years.

Few venues in the music world can rival the Fillmore in San Francisco for tradition, with the hallowed hall serving as ground zero for the psychedelic rock counterculture in the 1960s. Playing the Fillmore has continued to serve as a milestone occasion for rising bands since the venue's re-opening in 1994. That's something ace saxman Karl Denson achieved twice around the turn of the millennium as the Greyboy Allstars made their Fillmore debut in the spring of 1999 and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe followed in the spring of 2000.

Denson's funky dance parties have been a regular occurrence at the Fillmore over the past two decades, and a great new tradition is now growing, with Tiny Universe returning for late December shows for the third time in four years. Tonight's Friday funk fest here on 27 December is also the second time in three years when Denson celebrates his birthday at the Fillmore, following his spectacular special-guest filled 60th Earth birthday bonanza in 2016. It's still hard to believe that Denson is actually in his 60s since both his energetic music and his appearance (save for the grey goatee) suggest a much younger vibe.

The Motet are co-headliners this evening, and the band provides a serviceable set of groove-based music in the opening slot. The Denver-based funksters can bring the heat when it's the right time and place, but here it feels like only about half the audience is really into it. Meanwhile, the other half is taking a more casual interest as they wait to be transported to the Tiny Universe. The vibe rises to a higher level when Denson and his mates hit the stage, activating two decades of cosmic jam circuitry in the Fillmore's space-time continuum.

A sizzling cover of Cyril Neville's seminal 1969 classic "Gossip" is an early peak that gets the crowd energized. Tiny Universe recorded the song for their latest album -- 2019's Gnomes & Badgers -- and the tune fits right into the band's wheelhouse with the tight horn lines, hard-edged guitar riffage, and dynamic vocals about how the guitarist is going to "play it real funky". The band is throwing down some serious old school funk here and the party is on. "Something Sweet" is another catchy number from the new album, with an uplifting groove and a jazzy sax solo from Denson.

Denson takes a moment to speak of the current "Festivus" season, making a particular note about the airing of grievances aspect. "Call 'em up and say I love ya, but I got problems with you," Denson says wryly, conjuring a knowing chuckle from fans having current issues with a certain friend or acquaintance. That serves as a prelude to the classic "Front Money", a tight number with Denson and trumpeter Chris Littlefield leading the charge with their horns over an infectious groove from bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor. Guitarist D.J. Williams blazes a hot solo as the groove keeps on surging, before giving way back to the horns.

Denson adds another socially conscious note when he says the next song is "dedicated to the times we live in", leading into "Time to Pray" from Gnomes & Badgers. The bluesy funk tune features Denson singing out about finding solid ground amidst a rising tide, as the band catches another hot groove. "How many of you voted in the last election?" Denson asks, seeming like he wants to get a show of hands for how many are ready to vote in 2020's critical election to save America from the dark forces of greed and avarice that have seized power.

Denson gets a strong response and says, "This one goes out to you" before turning the clock back for "The Bridge", a Tiny Universe classic from 2002's album of the same name. The charged number has been one of the most inspiring tunes in the repertoire since the Bush/Cheney era, and the song resonates with timely flavor here at the end of 2019, as Denson sings "We're going over, and under the bridge, no turning back!" Keyboardist David Veith adds some extra vibe with his dynamic organ parts, and Denson delivers some of his most intense sax work of the night, conjuring visions of greats like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

A jazzy instrumental jam on the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" keeps the dance floor grooving, with Denson playing the vocal melodies on sax. Veith delivers a big organ solo as the band takes the jam for an extended ride in honor of Denson's prestigious service as a touring member of the Stones since 2014 (including at the band's triumphant Bay Area appearance before a packed Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara this past August).

As the set steams toward the end, there's a brief pause for the delivery of a birthday cake, with Denson blowing out the candles at center stage. It's been another fun Fillmore birthday fiesta for Denson, and the band goes for a big finish with the insurgent "Mighty Rebel" from 2009's Brother's Keeper. The reggae-tinged number has some of the vibes from Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up", rockingly recalibrated for the 21st century's struggle in "a world that's falling apart".

Denson is more than just a ringleader for a good time here, embracing the role of great rebel counterculture musicians of the past as he implores the audience, "You know you've got to rise up, rise up, the war has begun, to fight back is the only solution, our only solution, and love is a gun!" The song is so inspiring it was once used as the soundtrack for a video of an Occupy Wall Street march, and it feels like a timely anthem for the good people of humanity heading into the pivotal 2020 campaign season.

The band throws down another funky rave-up from the new album in the encore slot with "I'm Your Biggest Fan", sending the party people out into the night on a high. It's been another stellar cosmic dance party at the Fillmore, as Karl Denson's Tiny Universe appears poised to carry their momentum into the new year for a big 2020.

Photo: Robbie Jeffers / Courtesy of Calabro Music Media





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.