Photos by Jaci Downs | 10.11.02 TLA Philly
Embarking on their most ambitious tour – a five-week venture that carried them from West Coast to East – Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe systematically worked its way across our great country. Blowing up the Fillmore in San Francisco, the House of Blues in Chicago, and several other choice venues in markets large and small, KDTU was out to cement its reputation as a behemoth touring machine. Simultaneously promoting its wondrous new album The Bridge and spreading that jazzy funkrock vibe that has earned the Tiny Universe a devoted and rabid following, Karl Denson and Co. roared into the East Coast Big Three of New York, Philly and Washington D.C. with authority.
Those who made the effort to come out for Karl on the first night were treated to a dynamite show. I walked in early in the first set to the melody of one of my favorite KDTU classics “Family Tree.” Denson and trumpeter Chris Littlefield really build this song’s crescendo into soaring magic, and I did not tire of this song even though it was played each night in almost the same spot. “Strauss” was an ‘Also Sprach’ sounding number that featured boogaloo undertones and a subliminal TV show theme vibe. Another tune that made into every setlist was “Satisfied” (off The Bridge), a bouncy polyrhythmic R&B joint that cooks with sensuality and an Earth Wind and Fire kind of vibe. A banging flute outro led into a sweet “Bunny Player.” After “Because of her Beauty” during which Brian Jordan‘s crunchy leads drove Karl to display dirty grimaces and head nodding, the Tiny Universe busted out David “Fathead” Newman>Fred Wesley tandem: “Missy>Damn Right I’m Somebody “to torch the end of the first set.
During the setbreak I observed Ivan Neville (still in town since the Concept a week earlier) kicking it with bassist Ron Johnson and a female friend. I also noticed quite a few people leave, as it was a weeknight and work beckoned the next morning. I thought about the same but the Ivan sighting kept me around, and boy was it ever worth my while.
After a newer song “Walt’s First Trip” and the incredibly sexy “Apparently Nothing” to open the second set, Ivan Neville took to David Veith‘s Hammond B3 organ as Mr. Veith slid over to his Fender Rhodes. Then the Tiny Universe plus one smacked you with a raging “Good For You,” played slightly faster and harder than I remember the song coming across before.
Denson announced Ivan as “Orin Neville” before somebody corrected him, and Ivan seemed to take this as a playful personal affront. Through his rabid organ prowess and animated style, Neville showed Mr. Denson exactly who the ‘eff he is with some rumbling keyboard shrieking and climax, and Karl took that energy and launched into a steamy tenor solo. An old school chestnut followed in the form of “Can You Feel It,” a steamy song from yesterday and its only appearance during my five show run, and the fave rose to a new perch injected with Neville’s jovial intensity.
Sensing he’d made his point, Neville retreated from the organ to a loud applause, and then Living Daylights saxophonist Jessica Lurie emerged for “Donkey Walk,” during which Ron Johnson played on upright bass. Soon drummer/birthday boy Zak Najor relinquished his drum seat to none other than Stanton Moore, hands down my favorite skinbasher. KDTU went old school again, busting out Big Maceo Merriweather’s “Chicago Breakdown” as Najor messed with some of Karl’s percussion toys, shaking and grinning and moving around, while Stanton beautifully and brutally assaulted the drum kit. At one point, Karl moved back to the set and just cold blew lines in Stanton’s ear as the drummer reinterpreted the melodies within his lyrical and maniacal drumming.
After this positively extravagant display of camaraderie, Karl bellowed out to the Galactic drummer, “Stanton, you done broke Oak’s pedal!” As the stagehands began to remedy and Zak made his way back to the kit, KD told a humorous story from the Greyboy days when the band forgot Zak’s birthday for an entire show and he never reminded any of them until after it was over. Karl then asked if we’d like to hear some James Marshall Hendrix, the band then drove full speed into a Mack truck version of the Band of Gypsies’ “Power of Soul.” The high-powered opening portion, filled with pulverizing horns and boom bap bass and drums, made it seem mammoth in size, volume and intensity.
During the Hendrix cover Brian Jordan’s fiery guitar work on his spanking new green Gibson SG had the fists pumping and air guitar virtuoso on display from nearly every body still inside Irving Plaza. Towards the end KDD’s lovely wife Deborah joined him onstage for some dancing and romancing, and playful percussion fun.
I was nearly an hour late for work on Friday morning, ’twas well worth the glare from my supervisor.
Friday night in NYC, the energy is always raging. People are just so psyched the weekend has arrived and Monday seems light years away. It is time to get the ya-yas out, blow the back out, and make the shoes work. Tonight was to start out no different, as I was late getting to the show for a second straight night (they don’t call me the human rain delay for nothing!).
I arrived in the middle of “Satisfied,” and for the duration of that song I was making my way up to the freaks in the front. On the way up some familiar faces told me I’d missed an eerie “Check Out Your Mind.” By the time we made it to our destination, KD was well into the explanation behind writing “Because of Her Beauty,” before which each night he explains how he wrote this song for the women in his life (his mother, wife and daughters). KDTU then proceeded to just blaze an ill version of this sensual love song, not without yet another gritty Jordan guitar solo. The title track from the new album closed out the first set.
The place was abuzz during the setbreak, blaring New York hip-hop filled the room with bombastic sound as people shouted to one another from two feet apart. Many friends and familiar faces, and the energy that makes you feel like you are indeed ‘where its at’.
The Mighty Samson began the second set with a spirited conga solo up near the front of the stage. Karl went to great lengths to secure this percussionist’s services, and he spotlights the African drummer at least once a night. Often times, as songs dropped breakdown, the band would kinda squat and watch with gazing wonder at the emotion and unadulterated happiness flowing through his arms and smile.
“Steamed Water” got the place boiling as Karl led the band into a torrid set of classic KDTU interspersed with newfound explorations. The thumping Ron Johnson busted an illin’ electric upright bass solo that just begged for a BBQ. The bassist delivered to Brandi, Nina and the rest of us a “Fallin'” sexy as can be, and Irving Plaza seemed to turn into P.Diddy video, what with chicks and the drinks waving above and certainly the swanky dancing. After a climaxing, intricate horn head atop a descending dissonant riddim, Karl and Littlefield drove right into possibly my all time favorite “Groove On.”
In typical Tiny Universe fashion, just when you think things simply cannot burn baby burn any hotter, out walks Mr. Warren Haynes, Gibson Les Paul in hand, prepared to bring a little rock and roll into the equation. KDTU plus one big ‘ol Southern man were a forceful bluesy rock machine during a heated (at this point temperature is ungodly hot) version of yes, another Jimi anthem, “Spanish Castle Magic.” Haynes equal parts Slash and John Lee Hooker, screamed out to the heavens with emotive high neck bends and waling Gibson tone that must have had Hendrix salivating wherever he is (even though Jimi played a Fender). To show some versatility, hark back for us old schoolers, and display the depth of the catalogue, Karl brought out “Tenor Man,” during which Haynes felt right at home in the cozy blue confines of this jazzier inflected number. Haynes wove beautiful melodies that intertwined with the choice chorus that Mr. Denson soulfully sang:
Gov’t Mule‘s keyboardist Danny Louis joined Veith, and Topaz (whose band opened the show) appeared for a double shot of funk and soul, crowded the stage and adding to the already decorative nature of the performance. “Ruff Tuff and Tumble,” a shuffling groove jam, stretched out for a while and arrived into Stevie Wonder’s “Contusion” from Songs in the Key of Life. The guests shone as the Tiny Universe laid the foundation and KD both led and basked in the glory of his master concoction. The Tiny Universe collected themselves and busted an abbreviated “Bootsy” to send us into the Manhattan streets adrift.
After a whole lot of rest and a Yankee loss, we headed back to Irving Plaza for night three. The thought of Robert Walter’s 20th Congress at the Bowery seemed like a great alternative, but like Miss Brandi so eloquently declares, “We are Karl freaks!” Albeit a little winded, my excitement levels and general stamina had not subsided one bit by Saturday night, and I couldn’t wait for some more crunkologic science.
Just in case people needed to work out some kinks in their body or brain, The Tiny Universe busted out of the gates with Fred Wesley’s “The Grunt.” Allowing the crowd and band to ‘get it out with the grunt, a great warm-up tune that broke right into “Criminal Mastermind,” the fantastic R&B joint that features some of Karl’s best crooning. The hip-hop afro beat juxtaposition “Freedom” (which features Saul Williams and Michael Franti on The Bridge) got the crowd feet shuffling and moving swiftly and the collective audience bounced to the rapid-fire groove.
A song that KD explains is equal parts for the fellas AND the ladies, “Everything Will Be Alright,” created a really bright and beaming vibe that was certainly exacerbated by the big time lighting rig that accompanies KDTU’s blistering sonic assault. “Everything” also brings the massive together in a reassuring chorus that tends to induce eyes closing and blissful dancing expression. It was towards the end of this song that Deborah Denson arrived in the front row with us and began to groove with the Irving Plaza massive.
During “Satisfied” I noticed Karl singing to his wife with a sly smile and some hip swagger as she gave the lyric, love, and energy right back to him, segueing into “Because of her Beauty,” where it seemed both Karl and Deborah were melting with adulation. “What You Want” closed out a fantastic and evenly paced first set.
Set six of the weekend began with a hard-edged rock jam where Zak Najor dropped thunderous clues of what was to come. “Brothers and Sisters” brought that blaxploitation vibe to the forefront of the Tiny Universe’s sound, and Karl interrupted a firing version of this joint for a quick workout of the JB’s “Tighten Up,” only to return and have Brian Jordan and Zak Najor slay the shit out of “Brothers and Sisters.” Jordan’s spirited rock tune from many moons ago “Beliefism,” gave the crowd both taste of what Brian sounds like vocally but also a primer in bar chord crunch. Najor terrorized his ever-growing drum kit with machine-gun fury, raging the double bass drum in the blast-beat vein of Dave Lombardo.
Deborah returned up front to appropriately dance to “How Fine is That”, which features the lyric:
Watching Karl sing that from the stage to his wife was worth the price of admission alone, and I now have a new understanding as to how the inspiration comes to Karl, how he can write such fantastically sensual R&B songs. Miles Davis’s “Jan Jan” (Grant Green’s version) was delivered in a slower, sexier and more deliberate fashion than I can remember, giving both Littlefield and Denson wide open soaring horn leads. KD wound the band back to the R&B with quickness, in the form of “The Answer,” which apparently is about when two people are struck by lightning at the same time, inevitably falling in love. This Soulquairan jones continued the soulful swanky vibe and brought the ‘play on playa’ aura to the level it should be at during a KDTU show.
One of my all time favorite groove songs of all time seems to have been co-opted by many bands these days. I used to relish the opportunity to see one of today’s artists cover Grant Green’s “Windjammer,” however recently it has become somewhat commonplace to hear. However, no other act does it the justice that the Tiny Universe do (save for maybe any Fareed Haque project). Closing out the second set of night three was a most glorious, climactic and rousing version, complete with frenetic hollow body work on behalf of Brian Jordan, and Mr. Karl Denson, the hardest working man in show business, thumping and bumping like Barkley and Mahorn.
When you are successful in your profession, or financially, and still unfulfilled, still searching for some sort of happiness your work or you wealth cannot afford, Karl terms that feeling “Rich Man’s Welfare.” When “your soul isn’t satisfied”(as he so emphatically explained to us at Bonnaroo) you look elsewhere. And the Tiny Universe provides that welfare in the form of song, energy, love, funk, rock and roll, and multi-cultural smorgasbord of sonic delicacy. After the one and only encore of this whirlwind weekend of KDTU, my soul was more than satisfied; yet damn it felt good to be on some rich man’s welfare. Word.
We headed uptown to Tobacco Road early Sunday morning for some late night Robert Walter/Joe Russo/Marco Benevento/Will Bernard/Justin Wallace/many others madness. I saw Karl and Deborah a little ways up the block walking out towards the New York City night looking very much in love, adding to the already glowing vibrations filing out into the concrete jungle. In just six short days, a banging weekend of KD in Philadelphia and D.C. would be waiting…
[Published on: 10/30/02]
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