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.
Photo: Robbie Jeffers / Courtesy of Calabro Music Media
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.