For over thirty years, Karl Denson has been omnipresent across a myriad of musical landscapes, jam to jazz to Jagger. My own earliest introduction to the saxophone sultan was the polyester swagger of Lenny Kravitz’s 1991 sophomore LP Mama Said, later the comedic genius of Sexual Chocolate from Coming to America, and the late ’90s rare-groove resurgence/revolution spearheaded by The Greyboy Allstars. As time wore on, he joined the stoned surf-reggae of Slightly Stoopid, and most recently the global stadium rock institution that is The Rolling Stones, not to mention a thousand sit-ins with a thousand artists from NOLA to New York City and all points between. This man invented the Jazz Fest sunrise show! Few artists can straddle the various scenes and genres within the festival circuit so seamlessly, as Karl D is a warmly welcomed addition to any player’s stage. On this night, the spotlight would belong to him, however Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe graciously invited some bold-font faces to the festivities.
Celebrating the iconic bandleader’s 60th birthday on a brisk December Tuesday night at The Fillmore in San Francisco, a capacity-crowd came together in ceremonious fashion, as a cavalcade of stars joined the man affectionately dubbed “The Diesel.” Long running R&B rock band of troubadours, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was the foundation for a series of musical adventures that ran the gamut, from Karl’s various influences and an evolutionary sampling of his endeavors. As per the current tastes of the man of the hour, the show leaned heavier on rock & roll than it did the textbook KD funk and groove, but Denson will only turn sixty once; he has earned the right to curate his birthday party. For well over two hours, KDTU showed the Fillmore faithful once again that it is indeed a small planet, but an even tinier universe.
Coming out of the gates with “New Ammo”, a sharp and focused driving funk number penned by guitarist D.J. Williams, it was clear that the current incarnation is firing on all cylinders. Karl grabbed his flute early and often, and immediately locked in synergy with longtime KDTU percussionist Mike Dillon (who was a touring member for several years). Mike D especially stoked the flame of drummer Alan Evans, whose free-wheelin’, high-register vocals on “Down Down Down” mined the proverbial deep end for the dearly-departed Queen of Disco. In channeling the fabulous Sylvester (a Bay Area LGBT icon whose last public appearance was at the nearby Castro Street Fair), the late Seventies San Fran disco-groove brought with it two-tons of fun(k). The drummers’ freight train energy whipped the stage into a frenzy; sadly the audience remained relatively tame despite our efforts to spice up the dance floor. Forever punk in drublic, Dillon was not deterred, he played the entire hundred and forty minutes with the band as if he had never left.
Denson took time throughout the show to tell stories about how he connected with several collaborators, some of whom who would join KDTU onstage that evening. During the recent Southeast run with Jimmy Herring, they worked up ZZ Top’s frenetic “Just Got Paid”, and the band ran through it with aplomb sans the WSMFP axeman. Later, Denson explained on fertile Prankster soil of his own personal relationship to the music and culture of the Grateful Dead. Denson recalled the halcyon days of festival booking, remarking on when he saw the seeds of the flourishing jam scene sewn. After a few choice words about Phil Lesh, Denson welcomed to the stage the likes of Ivan Neville, Luther Dickinson, and Jackie Greene for a rollicking take on “Viola Lee Blues”, a veritable Fillmore West anthem going back nearly half-a-century. The GD love continued with “Here Comes Sunshine”, an ambitious thought and novel idea, though a tangerine dream executed with a bit less success.
New Orleans is the city where the Diesel really made his bones, and longtime homeboy Ivan Neville stepped up to join David Veith on keyboards as he’s done dozens of times, from Tipitina’s Uptown to Irving Plaza. Ivan lent his inimitable voice and steez to “Let A Woman Be A Woman,” and the X-Pensive Wino showed and proved on the Rolling Stones deep cut “Sway.” Karl’s been running with the Slightly Stoopid krewe for several years now, and it was no surprise to see sax foil Daniel De La Cruz (who toured with KDTU and is preparing a solo album co-produced by… guess who? Karl Denson) join Tiny Universe consigliere Chris Littlefield (trumpet) just like old times. Soon Stoopid drummer Rymo, trombonist Andy Geib and bassist Miles Doughty stepped onstage to ‘run tingz,’ while Chris Stillwell dipped backstage to grab a personalized cake with candles aflame. The Stoopid Universe got loose on “Speedometer”, and “Devil’s Door,” before the Greyboy bassist reappeared and a Fillmore-strong “Happy Birthday” singalong ensued.
The show’s final stretch was by far and away its strongest, and sexiest. Dumpstaphunk founder Neville and North Mississippi All-Stars’ Dickinson re-emerged to lead a charge through the always well-received “Express Yourself.” Denson then acknowledged another Herring-bone, in the form of manic expression: “Some Skunk Funk”, at once a groove-machine and an algebraic exam- courtesy of Philly’s Brecker Brothers. A double dose of classic bombastic KDTU sent us into the streets reeling. Veith’s newest original is indeed “So Real,” a chunky slab o’blaxploitation vibration, with a fun and funky feel, undeniable chorus, and mellifluous melody taboot. To bring it on home, Denson delivered this writer’s favorite (current) KDTU cover- Steely Dan’s outrageous “Showbiz Kids.” With Alan Evans laying down a merciless pocket, and Littlefield’s pimp hand ever-strong, Karl blew his sax like a man touched by an angel. The squadron passed the jam around, as the newest member of the Tiny Universe, slide-maven Seth Freeman, was getting his blues licks in, trading a fierce tango with D.J. Williams. Mike Dillon remained pulverizing the riddims with atypical punked up glee. And over there in the middle, holding it down like an absolute G, was that bad, bad man- they call him Karl D.
After the masses spilled into the Fillmore streets and over to the Boom Boom Room for late night funk jam sessions, we were treated to an invitation to a small and spirited birthday ceremony with the man himself. As a cadre encircled Karl, we shared cake, memories, and barrels of laughs, recounting this or that from over the years. In a small green room, friends from every era of Karl’s career squished together to toast this tremendous human being. In maybe the most touching moment on a night filled with them, just as Denson was beginning to process the abundance of love that had congregated in his honor, a voice rose above the conversational hum, and a melody familiar filled the room. With an smile from ear to ear and heart glistening from her bosom, Bay Area R&B temptress (and Berkeley’s best kept secret) Viveca Hawkins proceeded to serenade Karl with Stevie Wonder’s timeless arrangement of “Happy Birthday.” A few more times with feeling, and the friends rejoiced, as for if only in this moment, all was right on this small planet, and the stars had aligned, in our tiny universe.
Three cheers for Karl Denson, for you are a gentleman and a scholar. Happy Birthday Diesel!
One of your biggest fans- goin’ on 25 years, and your friend for life,
Setlist: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe | The Fillmore | San Francisco, CA | 12/27/16
Set: New Ammo, Boogaloo, Down Down Down, Just Got Paid, Sway, Viola Lee Blues, Drop Down Mama, Here Comes Sunshine, Let A Woman Be A Woman, Nobody Wants You, Speedometer, Devil’s Door, This Version, Express Yourself, Po Black Maddie, Funky On My Back, Some Skunk Funk, So Real
Encore: Show Biz Kids
Photography- Susan J. Weiand
Words: B. Getz