Karl Denson brought his beloved backing band, the Tiny Universe, to New Orleans’ Orpheum Theatre for a special tribute to the late, great Amy Winehouse last Thursday night to help kick off the second weekend of Jazz Fest festivities. Karl D and his merry band are no strangers to tribute shows, with many long runs of their immensely popular features on artists like Run DMC, David Bowie, Prince, The Allman Brothers Band, and The Rolling Stones among past successes. Before they delivered the first edition of their special Amy Winehouse tribute show with soulful vocalist Danielle Ponder, Denson and company carved out a little space for a short introductory set of their own tunes to welcome new fans and celebrate their own 25th anniversary tour at the same time.
After that clutch of Tiny Universe tunes was met with cheers and waves of audience approval, the amazing Ponder came out and got the party started with a deep and groovy take on “Tears Dry On Their Own”. Ponder’s soaring, soulful vocals on the opening number made the promise of the music to come all the more enticing. Quick to cash in on that excitement, the band teased out the reggae strains of “Our Day Will Come”, which featured some stellar keys and chord work from the Tiny Universe’s Kenneth Crouch before trumpeter Ricio Fruge and the always impressive Diesel himself punctuated the solo section with some fierce horn work, collectively building to a delightful, swirling conclusion.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – “Can We Trade” – 5/4/23
After a fun and frolicking “Just Friends” came and went, the band bequeathed a revelatory take on “I’m No Good” that transformed the original into an almost ragtime-meets-soul iteration. This new version showcased the diversity of the Tiny Universe and the range the group could bring to material like the Winehouse catalog. After a sly plug for Ponder’s upcoming first New Orleans headlining show at the Toulouse Theatre May 13th, it was time for the wild energy of the reggae/ska/polka-flavored “Monkey Man”. If stages could run off excitement and pure performer joy, the Orpheum clearly could have powered the whole show out of the energy generated by this single song. Guitarist DJ Williams looked as if he wanted to drop his guitar and just get down like the guy with the best seat in the house (which he was).
Ponder’s ability to weave her raw, human experience into songs like “Love Is A Losing Game” met the deft skills of Denson perfectly, and, aided by a truly pitch-perfect organ solo by Crouch, gave this tune an emotional heft that was unexpected but most welcome. Ponder then took a brief powder break as Denson brought out one of his own children, daughter Sadie Denson, for her first time on stage to sing Winehouse’s “Do Me Good”.
It turns out the apple didn’t fall far from the tree as she was quite impressive, especially considering her lack of previous entertainment experience. Papa Denson backed her dutifully, not just as a band leader, but as a player too, adding a magnificent flute solo to the funk and groove mix the Tiny Universe set up for her to work with. While it didn’t seem as if Sadie had designs on leaving her regular gig as a zoologist, she has a pretty solid backup gig in the family business. After shout outs from her proud papa, Sadie danced her way off stage while the band expanded the wide landscape of funk they had opened for the tune for a few minutes of instrumental bliss.
Ponder was quick to come back out for a sultry slow burner of a take on “He Can Only Hold Her” with bassist Parxker McAllister and drummer Alfred Jordan providing some silky smooth dance grooves for everyone to get down and dirty. With the end of the night quickly approaching, it was time to get the real funk out. The rolling intro of “Back To Black” threatened to fly out of control multiple times before Denson and trumpeter Fruge managed to wrestle it down into manageable, if only barely, territory, before completely losing control. The slam-bang conclusion was easily one of the evening’s highlights.
After proudly introducing the band, Denson began a chant fans have heard many times over the years, proclaiming, “We ARE The Tiny Universe!” in a seemingly endless loop, ramping up with power, pride, and glory. To close out the night, Karl D introduced the last song with a self-effacing story about not realizing he had left out one of the biggest Winehouse hits of all, “Valerie”. Reminded of his slip by a “relieved he didn’t have to play it” Ricky Giordano, it turned out the guitarist should have kept quiet because Denson immediately said, “Well we gotta play that!” Giordano shouldn’t have feared, however, because as with the rest of the night’s incredible reworkings, Karl Denson & The Tiny Universe made the track their own.
While some artists could easily lose their identities after so many times putting on such complete musical masks, it’s a testament to Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s idiosyncratic sound and impressive skills that they continually nail these excursions. The Tiny Universe will be out there the rest of 2023, celebrating their rare and impressive feat of surviving and thriving for 25 years, and it’s clear Karl Denson and company have only just begun to get funky!
Setlist: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe | Orpheum Theatre | New Orleans, LA | 5/4/23
Amy Winehouse Tribute Set: Tears Dry On Their Own, Our Day Will Come, Just Friends, I’m No Good, Monkey Man, Love Is A Losing Game, Do Me Good, He Can Only Hold Her, Back To Black, Valerie