Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe brought their brand of optimistic funk to White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on July 31 for an enthusiastic Wednesday night crowd. With them for an opening set of reggae and saxophone showmanship was DeLa and Steady Rock Easy. DeLa is the saxophone player for Slightly Stoopid, the San Diego reggae outfit with which Karl Denson has recorded and performed with as a sought after horn player himself. And I must say… Karl Denson is a hell of a bandleader!
Seriously, this guy is relentlessly generous. When you share the stage with some of the top-notch talent in the music business, there’s plenty of room to share in the groove.
Pulling from a selection of bouyant reggae beats from his latest studio effort Opening Night, on which Denson is a guest musician, DeLa and Steady Rock Easy provided a straight up and joyful delivery. DeLa’s chops are seasoned, and tasteful, greasing the wheels for the ride Karl Denson and Co. were about to venture on. For the finale of the opening set, DeLa spoke, “If Karl Denson is in the house, we’d like to get him up here…. Oh I guess he is here!” Denson then came out for a collaborative saxophone duo to close out the Steady Rock set.
The most glaringly obvious thing about Karl Denson is his humility. Tiny Universe is widely regarded as one of the most talented and lively acts on the planet and, in addition to being a founding member of Greyboy Allstars, Denson was tapped by legendary rockers The Rolling Stones in 2014 as their touring saxophone player. In fact, the Stones played Metlife Stadium just one day after this gig. That’s quite a resume’ already, not even counting his impressive list of studio sessions and sit-ins. All of this, suffice to say, is enough to fluff anyone’s ego. Despite that, it seems that Karl Denson keeps a tighter grasp on his own humbleness than he does on his instruments. He grins and dances on stage with a tambourine as much as he fires on all cylinders with his saxophone or flute.
Gnomes and Badgers (out now via Seven Spheres Records) is Karl Denson’s commentary on today’s political atmosphere. A handful of the songs from that album made their way into Wednesday nights set, like “What If You Knew,” “Gossip” and “Can We Trade.” Each track is toe-tapping, no matter the pace, and laced with positivity. It’s uplifting that there is so much music being created right now that is built on optimism as opposed to avoiding hope for the future, given the state of affairs around the world.
There were also some throwbacks. “New Ammo,” from the album of the same name, is a racer. There’s also the Rolling Stones cover “Under my Thumb,” which abandons the lyrics in favor of harmonized horn lines of the vocal melody instead. Throughout all of it, Denson took a lot of opportunities to point, glance, and shift towards other members of the band as if to say, “You take a solo! Now you take a solo!” Again, hell of a band leader.
The closer, “Time to Pray,” was a fresh reminder that none of us are in a competition. Each member of the Tiny Universe team was shining bright and grinning in delight, reveling in each other’s stamina. The lyrics “Kneelin, kneelin, there is no other way / You think it’s time to win, I think it’s time to pray” gives weight to this idea; it’s not about being right, it’s about sharing in hope for a more positive and optimistic future. A blazing guitar solo, plenty of flute action, an up-tempo beat to drive the dancing festivities, and a huge, rising organ build up drove it all home on a high note.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is on tour through the end of August and takes on a Fall Tour from September through November.
Setlist via guitarist Dj Williams:
Catching Sparks, Everybody Knows That, Satisfied, Gossip, What If You Knew, Rich Man’s Welfare, I’m Your Biggest Fan, Can We Trade?, Under My Thumb, New Ammo, Time to Pray.