Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe crew posts up in Tahoe

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe leads the first of six shows at the Crystal Bay Casino on Friday, April 24.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Tim Parsons

With the power of soul, anything is possible — even live concerts after a 13-month shutdown due to a global pandemic.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe played the first of six shows over three nights in the Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room on Friday, a joyous gathering of music fans and musicians at long last happy to make the scene.

“You all look absolutely stunning,” Denson remarked toward the end of the 12-song, 90-minute early show.

The bandleader’s observation was based on everyone’s celebratory and dancing response, because their faces were mostly covered by masks. Seats were spaced in twos and fours and the 700 capacity venue was limited to 150. The overhead fans spun at full force, the stage lighting and sound was excellent and the band was extremely tight. The spontaneity of the crowd drawing the musicians back to the stage for an encore is gone, at least for the early shows.

Casino Manager Bill Wood opened the evening by asking folks to “help us out” by wearing masks and social distancing, and to leave as soon as the show ends, “just like church,” with a second performance to follow.

The double-duty probably comes as relief to the players, considering they don’t need to pack, travel and reload each night.

Backstage after the early show, guitarist D.J. Williams said, “I am looking forward to sitting still and not traveling for a couple of days and only having five more sets.”

Denson told the crowd he was happy “to post up in Tahoe” and was going to ski on Saturday at Squaw Valley with his son. In the audience, Louis Denson corrected his father, telling a fellow concertgoer that he’s a snowboarder, not a skier.

The first shows this spring at the Crown Room are by bands familiar to Tahoe, including Jackie Greene and the California Honeydrops and upcoming appearances by The Mother Hips and Petty Theft.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe — or KDTU — has played the venue numerous times, the last being September 2019.

Denson, an extremely well-conditioned 64-year-old saxophone and flute player, in recent years has been a touring member of the Rolling Stones. He’s also a founding member of the Greyboy Allstars. KDTU can be considered all-stars, too.

D.J. Williams is a high-altitude player from Denver.

D.J. Williams plays rhythm and lead with a crisp R&B style and is complemented with the band’s newest member, guitarist Ricky Giordano. Charismatic Chris Littlefield is out front with trumpet and flugelhorn. The rhythm section is former Greyboy Allstar Zak Najor on drums and Chris Stillwell on bass. David Veith, who played with Denson for a time with Lenny Kravitz is on keyboards.

The band played six tunes from its latest album, “Gnomes & Badgers.” It also visited its library and pulled out songs from three other albums, including “Freedom” from all the way back to 2002 off “The Bridge.”

With a a penchant for masterful, creative cover arrangements, Denson opened the show with the Alan Evans song “Have You Seen Him.” The Beastie Boys’ “Root Down” followed. Denson first covered that tune on a run with California reggae’s Slightly Stoopid. And the classic soul rockers in the crowd were pleased to hear “Power of Soul,” a Jimi Hendrix-written tune recorded with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox and Band of Gypsys on New Year’s Eve 1969 in the Fillmore East in New York.

The only surprise came with the last song, “Can We Trade.” Doing just that, Williams swapped his Telecaster for Stillwell’s bass. Denson introduced the band and pointed to the bass player, surprised to see it was Williams.

The show ended with the crowd wanting more. But, as with church, people swiftly filed out. Live music is back at Crystal Bay. Amen.

-Marcia Schultz contributed to this story.

New to the stage is a giant crown set above the drum kit.
  • Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
  • Crystal Bay Casino, April 23, 2021 (early show)
  • Set list
  • Have You Seen Him
  • Freedom
  • Root Down
  • Gossip
  • I’m Your Biggest Fan
  • Sure Shot
  • Power of Soul
  • What If You Knew
  • Something Sweet
  • Rich Man’s Welfare
  • Shake It Out
  • Can We Trade
Zak Najor’s bandmates cleared the stage while he soloed.
We’re not keeping score but the man in the middle, Chris Littlefield, had the most dance moves.
David Veith’s opening of “Something Sweet” was reminiscent of Billy Preston’s sound.
Have mask, will shred: Ricky Giordano.
Sax and flute player Denson has good singing pipes, too.

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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