Review: Karl Denson and company out of this Universe

Tahoe Onstage

Karl Denson at the mic, in Tahoe onstage on Jan. 28, 2017.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Larry Sabo

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe played to a packed and jamming, humming and happy house at the Crystal Bay Club, where his huge and dedicated fan base followed in full force, to smile, sway and rave the night away with another stellar performance by the San Diego legend.

I’d never seen them before. I was struck by how crazy beatific his fans were. I’ve seen my share of excellent music, but these people were acting like Deadheads about Jerry; who was this guy, Karl Denson, anyhow?

Tahoe Onstage

Although the show was a sellout, music lovers found room to dance.

I got my answer the instant they bounced onstage in the Crown Room. Within seconds of listening to their opening number, I was lost, mesmerized, hanging on their every note. Karl Denson and bandmates – a seven-man ensemble, serpentine and sensational – are an infectiously inspiring, high-energy (understatement) bunch of dancing (playing, singing) fools. But let’s focus on the dancing part for just one moment here. From the second they hit the stage, besides blowing and playing tight, synchronized arrangements on their horns, guitars and keyboards, that flourished with intelligence and emotional tenor, they were also whipping out the dance steps, rhythmic, keeping the beat, showing us how it’s done. Phenomenal stuff.

From choreographed steps and sashays in tandem with Denson, Seattle trumpeter Chris Littlefield slipped into free-form dancing with various other musicians on stage, before joining up with Denson again to finish their two-step. The audience went wild, sheer joy on everyone’s faces: a vibrant celebratory feeling gripped the room, and rarely have I felt such oneness at Crystal Bay, even with all the great music we’re blessed to see and hear there. Everyone felt fed.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s current touring lineup is comprised of Richmond, Virginia, guitarist DJ Williams, Soulive drummer Alan Evans, Greyboy Allstars’ bassist Chris Stillwell, Crush Effects’ keyboardist David Veith, trumpeter Littlefield, ace slide and lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman, and of course the inimitable Denson – saxophonist, flautist, percussionist, singer and extraordinary frontman. Each of these men shone in their own right, consummate on their respective instruments, vibrant, innovative, constantly in communication with one another, a seamless show of musicianship and verve. Polyrhythmic notes sprung from every player’s instrument as they took turns soloing, styling soulful riffs, chords and changes. Denson never stopped dancing, moving, tapping, or swaying with the music, his resonant voice and rippling saxophone notes equally powerful and commanding in their melodious message. Tight, shimmering, electrifying; definitely rocking (but not rock); funkadelic soul laced with experimental jazz, a polyphonic rhythmic mélange with an occasional psychedelic tinge sort of begins to describe the amazing KDTU.

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The Tiny Universe includes Seattle trumpeter Chris Littlefield.

Denson is a fluid, Gumby kind of guy – short of stature, but not small; heavily muscled, from all that bouncing all over stage and back while playing sublime, delicate, sweet, nuanced notes on his saxophone and flute, then seamlessly picking up a bell and stick, or tambourine, and filling in the edges front and center of percussive details. He is amazing, like a little engine powering everyone around him, percolating, pumping, bumping and grinding; an extraordinary performer, sincere from start to finish in his ebullient delivery and energetic danceable antics. (Also worthy of mention, the band’s classy style of dress, with their suit jackets, button-down shirts and ties; men in suits, dancing. Over the moon.) The secondary frontman, trumpeter Littlefield, alternated between dancing and hopping around as much as Denson, and playing soulful, tenderly nuanced and sublime notes on his horn, or jumping on percussion instruments in between blowing the brass. Understated, humble, yet full of passion and a powerful set of lungs and lips, Littlefield shone equally next to Denson’s wild incandescence.

Denson 5One dancing fan smilingly shouted to me that being at the show was like a “cross-fit” workout for sore ski leg muscles. I laughed – ain’t that the truth. And the best thing for them. Work it on out. We danced and we smiled, amidst delighted shouts of “Karl!” And when Karl, in turn, hollered, “Somebody scream!” you better believe the whole Crown Room did, in festive hearty response. Denson’s sax wailed on; long, uninterrupted crescendos, scatterings of syncopated notes, tweets (the original kind), inquisitive meandering and scorching riffs, bridged and back again; impeccable. Denson’s flute playing was equally impressive, commanding melody and rhythm in one fluid breath. His humble prowess and genuine fun-loving presence really connected. The whole band was having a blast, which couldn’t help but feed the crowd.

I could go on and on, lavishing praise upon praise on this band dubbed “one of the best live bands on the planet,” whose fearless leader also now plays with The Rolling Stones. But suffice it to say this was one of the best shows I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot of amazing shows in my lifetime, a long and rich one). I want to compare KDTU to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which I know in some ways is kind of a stretch, but in other ways, not. Sophisticated, shaken and let out of the bottle, these guys have grit and grace, a lyrical sensibility that fights back against the powers of tyranny rampant in the world today, and a suave, smooth presence that belies that fighting spirit. If music and love can’t save the world, then we’re going down on a ship with these guys at the helm, on fire and dancing.

Related story: Karl Denson talks Rolling Stones, Slightly Stoopid and sci-fi. LINK

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Guitarist DJ Williams is from Richmond, Virginia.

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Guitarist Seth Freeman eyes the keyboard work of David Veith.

Tahoe Onstage

Drummer Alan Evans also plays for Soulive and he produced an album for Reno’s Mark Sexton Band before it transformed to The Sextones.

Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plays at a sold-out Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room.

To see all of Larry Sabo’s photos from the show, click the LINK

About Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage is an online entertainment and sports magazine covering Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, the Carson Valley and June Lake.

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