Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe electrifies at Terrapin Crossroads

Karl Denson, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

Photos: Alessio Neri

SAN RAFAEL — Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe‘s show at Terrapin Crossroads Friday night confirmed that there is nothing quite as electrifying and exhilarating as a live musical performance with real instruments.

It helps that Tiny Universe is led by the multi-talented, dynamic saxophonist, singer and flutist Karl Denson, who has more than a few good years of live performance under his belt. Kicking off the 2017 leg of its “Runnin’ With The Diesel” tour in the North Bay, Tiny Universe is rounded out by his equally talented bandmates: guitarist DJ Williams, Soulive drummer Alan Evans, Greyboy Allstars’ bassist Chris Stillwell, Crush Effects’ keyboardist David Veith, Seattle trumpeter Chris Littlefield and slide and lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman.

Denson and his band brought down the house at the intimate Terrapin’s Crossroads, founded by Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh. Lesh joined the Tiny Universe during its lengthy second set, playing a handful of songs.

Denson and Lesh, who have played numerous gigs together, say they’re brought together by their love of improvisational performance.

“The Grateful Dead are famous for being an improvisational band, and me, coming from a jazz world, that’s what I’m all about too,” Denson told RIFF recently. “That’s what really allows us to hear each other and make sense of what each other’s doing.”

Their proclivity of improvisational performance was revelatory Friday. Watching each musician create music live, from Denson on saxophone to the outstanding Williams on guitar, was invigorating. The audience, comprised largely of baby boomers, couldn’t get enough. It speaks to the talent of Denson and the Tiny Universe musicians that they can put on a stripped-down performance that’s more magnetic, exciting and fun than most other live performances today that are often over-rehearsed and over-reliant on gimmicks.

While he’s not touring with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Denson’s got plenty of other projects in 2017 to keep him busy, working with five bands including Slightly Stoopid, Phil Lesh and Friends, The Greyboy All-Stars and The Rolling Stones, with whom he just finished a tour that included a performance at the inaugural Desert Trip in Indio. Previous collaborations include Lenny Kravitz, Blind Boys of Alabama and Blackalicious.

On top of all that, he plans to release his fourth solo album, from which he showcased material Friday, along with music from his critically acclaimed 2014 release New Ammo and 2009’s Brother’s Keeper. He describes the new album as “hodgepodge of ideas” touching on emotions and events that have been circulating around his life, and unlike prior albums, is made up of mostly original songs and will have a more rock and blues sound.

Both diehard fans familiar with their music and those who are totally new to it will not regret seeing Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Their show is a reminder of just how good live music can—and should—be.

Follow writer Heather Ah San at Twitter.com/heathermalia.


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