Tiny Universe: Karl Denson meets Ziggy Stardust

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe played “A Diesel Insane: The Music of David Bowie” at the Crystal Bay Casino. The show comes to San Francisco on March 5 and New Orleans on May 5, both at The Fillmore.

The Starman has entered Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.

Denson, the multi-instrumentalist from San Diego who moonlights with the Rolling Stones and has a penchant for immersing into projects, has created something out of this world: “A Diesel Insane: The Music of David Bowie.”

Denson said he selected “16 or 17” of his favorite songs from the 26-album David Bowie library. A saxophonist and flute player, Denson will sing five of the songs. “The lion’s share of the vocal work” will be conducted by Bernard Fowler, a fellow Stones touring bandmember.

“Learning other people’s music is always going to school,” Denson said. “The David Bowie thing was way harder than I expected. I had to bring in the heavy hitters.”

Denson is a founding member of the Greyboy Allstars and bandleader of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, often referred to as KDTU. Bassist Chris Stillwell also plays in both bands, which since 1994 have released a combined 11 albums.

A songwriter and music lover, Denson previously has performed the work of Ray Charles, the Beastie Boys and, in 2012, collaborated with Anders Osborne to present live the Rolling Stones 1971 album, “Sticky Fingers,” which was performed at Crystal Bay Casino’s Snowlive festival.

After Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys died, Denson became a member of the touring band in 2014.

“It’s incredible,” Denson said. “Now it’s to the point where I will go in Keith’s (Richards) room on show night and have Sheppard’s pie with him.”

To be a member of the Stones speaks to Denson’s talent. But he appears to be humble. For example, as a favor to the manager of San Diego reggae-rock band Slightly Stoopid, Denson was part of the touring horn section for a few years. Furthermore, he’s always accessible to the press. He called Tahoe Onstage from an Uber car in New York City on Tuesday to talk about appearance in the mountain town.

“I am going to do some skiing, baby,” he said. “I’m going to have three days off in Tahoe before the next show.”

The reporter steered off topic with questions: What’s your favorite resort (“Heavenly”) and are people surprised when he tells them he’s in the Rolling Stones?

“It’s not that I drop that out of the blue,” Denson answered. “It’s not really my pickup line. (But) it’s definitely a shocker. They’re that band. They are the band that everybody knows. Even if you think you don’t know them, you know them.”

Denson plays tenor sax alongside Keith and Mick and soprano saxman Tim Reis.

“(Reis) is one of my favorite people in the world,” Denson said. “He’s like my brother. We call ourselves Statler and Waldorf of the Muppets. That’s us. We play about a third of the show, so we spend a lot of time together backstage hanging out in our little box and we have the best time.”

Karl Denson has funat the Crystal Bay Casino on Friday, April 24, 2021.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

When drummer Charlie Watts died in August, he was replaced by Steve Jordan, who Watts had endorsed. Jordan, who along with Bobby Keys, was as member of Richards’ side band the X-pensive Winos.

“(Jordan) was in line for that chair for a long time but it still was shocking for him,” Denson said. “I remember the first time we played ‘Satisfaction’ and after the show asking him what was that like? He said, ‘Man, it’s crazy. To be actually onstage playing with the Rolling Stones.’ The word he used is ‘surreal.’”

Does Richards plan to bring back the X-pensive Winos?

“I have no idea,” Denson said. “Those guys are making music all the time. I think they are more interested in making music together as of the last 10 years. Ever since I’ve been with the band, when they go home, they’re making music together.

“I think since they had their falling out and they stopped playing and then they got back together right when I joined the band, I think they seem to be enjoying each other more and more every tour we do. Their personal relationship, they are not taking it for granted. We better make hay while the sun is shining. We’re the Rolling Stones.”

Karl Denson is on the big screen while performing with the Rolling Stones.

“A Diesel Insane: The Music of David Bowie” was scheduled to debut at last fall’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which after being rescheduled was canceled due to the pandemic.

“Even though the Jazz Fest thing was kind of a debacle, I am glad we didn’t do it because it was right in the middle of my Rolling Stones tour and rehearsal was kind of scarce,” Denson said. “I am glad we had much more time to devote to this music to get it right.”

Bowie died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 69. A native of London, he was a creative and hugely influential artist in every sense of the word. He experimented with different styles of rock, pop and psychedelia. From his 1969 album “David Bowie,” he released the song “Space Oddity” to coincide the Apollo 11 launch and it ascended to the top of music charts. The outer space theme continued in 1972 with the concept album “The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”

Bowie reinvented his sound throughout his career, which included tremendous success with glam albums “Diamond Dogs” and “Young Americans,” art rock albums “Heroes” and “Low.” On a Christmastime television special he sang a duet with Bing Crosby, who reportedly demanded Bowie to lose the makeup and earring. Bowie’s greatest commercial success was the 1983 pop-rock album “Let’s Dance,” which featured a young blues guitar phenom, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“My favorite period and my favorite song is (1976’s) “Station to Station,” Denson said. “That music for me is the pinnacle.”

Bowie usually performed out front – and in costume during the Ziggy Stardust era — as the lead singer but he was proficient on guitar, piano and saxophone, from which he created catchy melodies to weave with his poetic verses.

“His saxophone playing was all right; it was David Bowie,” Denson said. “It’s more about his songwriting. I’ve always had a kindred spirit with him from playing saxophone to being mainly a songwriter and singer, so I can relate to that.

“I also think playing single-note instruments makes you smarter in some ways. You have to adjust a lot more. You have to (provide) a lot more information than your chordal instruments.”

Notes: In April 2021, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was the second band to play at the Crystal Bay Casino after a 13-month shutdown. The collective audience was mindful to wear facemasks and keep socially distanced. “I like to consider myself a very sober-minded person and I think my crowd reflects that,” Denson said. “We’ve been playing Tahoe since about 1995 and that’s when we met the late Blake Beeman, the guy who built that room. So we’ve had friends up there forever and we get back as often as we can.” … Denson said his band will play “Panic in Detroit” from the 1973 Bowie album, “Aladdin Sane.” The song opens with the verse: “Oh, he looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a diesel van.” Denson is sometimes referred to as “The Diesel” ever since his 1997 postbop jazz album “The D Stands for Diesel.” … “Starman” was the first single from “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” The song appears on at least 10 Bowie compilation albums.

-Tim Parsons

Mick Jagger and Karl Denson share the stage. Photo by Peter Shapiro
Tip of the cap to heavenly Blake Beeman, Crystal Bay’s original soundman.

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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