In celebration of their bandleader’s 62nd birthday, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe strutted into San Francisco in late December for their customary engagement at The Fillmore, a historic room Karl D has been packing for many years. For their final California shows of 2018, KDTU started their BDay/NYE run in San Diego, calling on old friend (and local SD favorite) Z-Trip to join them onstage for a funky-live-hip-hop segment, before traveling north to the Bay for a boisterous two-fer with the venerable DJ in tow. The boys arrived to a blustery Bay Area primed for a proper celebration, and rest assured they did not disappoint.
On the first night, Friday December 28th, NOLA stalwarts Dumpstaphunk came out for direct support. In one of the bigger surprises in recent memory, Dumpsta welcomed Bay Area icon Carlos Santana to the stage for a soaring sit-in on a white Fender Stratocaster. Unfortunately, there were too many incredible musical options in the area, so on the 28th this writer found himself at the Erykah Badu show at The Warfield (read my review here.) Therefore, for the purposes of this story, we will skip to the following night at The Fillmore, where Jurassic 5 alumni Chali 2na and Cut Chemist dropped a proper duo set to open the festivities; two turntables and a microphone warmed up a capacity crowd before KDTU took over The Fillmore with a positively mammoth performance.
Opening with a couple uptempo pop numbers in “My Baby Likes to Boogaloo” and “Shake it Out”, Karl Denson grabbed the mic and fronted the band, singing and offering some choreographed dancing with veteran trumpet sideman Chris Littlefield. Denson made sure both his band and the audience was properly limbered up and loose, prepared to get the show underway from the stage and the dancefloor alike. Reaching back over fifteen years, KDTU uncorked a massive take on “The Bridge”, including a groovy reworked outro-jam, chased by a mouthwatering re-entry into the classic. Guitarist DJ Williamsreally shined on the new “The Bridge”, offering a series of lusty, Isaiah Sharkey-like licks. Karl, on the other hand, unveiled something of a beloved rarity these days, in the form of a lengthy, scintillating, downright sexy flute solo.
Denson then led the boys into a trifecta of tracks off their forthcoming album Gnomes and Badgers, due in the Spring. “I’m Your Biggest Fan” was probably the best of the bunch, more of the old-school soul-dream funky-jazz vibe that was KDTU’s bread and butter for a very long time. The newer material is spiced with a blues-rock edge that is enhanced by Seth Freeman’s Stratocaster style and slide guitar touch. On these three new joints from the long-anticipated follow up to New Ammo, it appears KDTU has found a happy medium between the glorious grooves of yesteryear, and Karl Denson’s (of the Rolling Stones!) modern-day fascination with classic rock n’ roll.
Denson invited longtime pal Z-Trip to the stage and the renowned DJ assumed his position behind an enormous station, with turntables, a mixer, samplers and more. Williams started up the beefy riff to Lenny Kravitz’s deep cut “Straight Cold Player” and Z-Trip took the reigns, leading the band in and out of the funk, scratching and mixing breaks while Denson and his squad burrowed through the burly jam. Chali 2na reappeared, he stepped up and showed out with a hot verse in his inimitable magnanimous baritone. As the Tiny Universe caught wreck, Z-Trip veered in and out of Public Enemy (“Rebel Without a Pause”) and LL Cool J (“Going Back to Cali”) for a thrilling segment.
Z-Trip sliced up a passionate benediction from poet Saul Williams, and KDTU took that handoff and (appropriately) ran all the way to “Freedom”, unveiling a rollicking Afrobeat style for the first time in a while. Seth Freeman shined bright on guitar and vocals, fronting drummer Zak Najor‘s cut “Nowhere to Run.” The KDTU wayback-machine then continued with the salacious R&B come-on “The Answer,” the old-school chestnut once a treasured Tiny Universe track before Karl benched it for a few years, as he leaned a bit harder into rock and blues.
Before we knew it, DJ Williams had started sneaking in the chicken-scratch riff that announces KDTU’s much-beloved swag anthem “Groove On”, a song that encapsulates this band’s glorious halcyon era maybe more than any other. This joint had been on the shelf for many years, after being an integral part of KDTU’s repertoire for a decade. It had also been a long time since we’d heard Karl lecture the “fellas” on gettin’ themselves right, before they step up to try and talk to a lady. That humorous banter was always the introduction to this steezy staple, and everybody in The Fillmore that remembered the time, knew precisely what was coming. Keyboardist David Veith tickled the Fender Rhodes just right, Karl blew his horn and strutted his stuff, bassist Chris Stillwell was the sturdiest of anchors, while drummer Zak Najor pushed the libidinous rhythms towards the sky, not unlike he did back in 2002, his last stint in this band. The full circle nature of this monumental moment was not lost on those of us who’ve been riding on the Tiny Universe train a very long time.
From there, Karl and company entered the home stretch, and dipped into the reggae-skank’d R&B of “Mighty Rebel”, another deep cut, this one found on 2009’s Brother’s Keeper. For the encore, Z-Trip returned (along with Cut Chemist) for a torrid run through Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot.” Z-Trip had something special up his sleeve for the hardcore Denson heads; while the band bobbed and weaved through the Ill Communication classic, the DJ scratched in the nugget of all nuggets: the badass break from “Ruffneck Jazz”, the debut LP from DJ Greyboy that features, you guessed, Karl Denson. The California brotherhood continued when Bay Area favorite son and Hammond organist extraordinaire Wil Blades joined David Veith on the keyboards. The squad closed out with DJ Williams original “New Ammo”, and with that wrapped up two tremendous nights at The Fillmore.
KDTU is steamrolling into 2019, “twice as nice, twice as strong.” At 62 years young, it’s crystal clear that Karl Denson still has got his groove on, and he’s showing zero signs of stopping. After one hundred minutes of steamy, sexy, birthday funk, on this San Francisco night, the Diesel was the best in town.
KDTU Setlist 12/29/18 The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA.-
My Baby Likes to Boogaloo, Shake It On, The Bridge, What if You Knew, Biggest Fan, -Z-Trip segment- Straight Cold Player* > Rebel Without a Pause> Going Back to Cali, Freedom, Nowhere to Run, The Answer, Groove On, Mighty Rebel. Encore- Sure Shot**, New Ammo
*featuring Chali 2na on vocals
**featuring Z-Trip, Cut Chemist on turntables and samplers, Wil Blades on Hammond B3
photo: Susan J. Weiand