KDTU | 02.13.04 | The Coach House | San Juan Capistrano, CA

Karl Denson and crew blew away The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Friday night after taking a month off following the extreme success of Jam Cruise. Energy was high, dancing shoes were on, and dirty funk was on the menu. Upon arriving to The Coach House, I was a bit taken aback to see that all designated dance space has diminished, taken over by bench seating on the dance floor, which seemed like a complete oxymoron to me. How are you going to have Karl Denson's Tiny Universe play to a crowd of people and honestly expect them to sit and eat and watch quietly and applaud at the appropriate times? The way I feel about it, even if you wanted to sit, you don't have a choice. KDTU brings dancing grooves much like smoking brings an oral fixation. Even if you don't want to, your body just responds like its second nature. It's almost as if your body creates a fixation on the groove, and even if you try not to, you become addicted. All things considered though, even tables and chairs were not going to keep this party from happening, and the second Karl made his way to the stage, every person in the room was on their feet and didn't sit down till the end.

Littlefield & Denson by Matt Layton
Before getting things started, Karl reminded everyone that Orange County is where he came from, and it was this very stage that was his first official gig. You could tell from the response and personal recognition that there were many family members and longtime friends of the band in attendance. KDTU wasted no time and jumped right into it with drummer John Staten and bassist Ron Johnson laying down the backbone and creating a playground for Brian Jordan to slide his guitar around in. Brian is a musician's musician, extremely versatile, amazingly humble, possessor of a signature sound that not only fills the pockets, it freak-dances all around and inside them. Spinning funk, jazz, and straight-up reggae into webs and casting them out to trumpet player Chris Littlefield and Karl for finishing touches, this band wasted no time setting the standard for the night. That standard consisted of playing each song like it was their last, driving it into the ground and snake charming it back up through the roof. The horns were flirting with each other all night, never letting up and always complimenting and showcasing sounds that would have left New Orleans drooling. It was almost disheartening in a way--a good way mind you--that these guys had not played in over a month together. It was merely a rehearsal that just so happened to have sold some tickets to old family and friends, and then took off in a direction all its own. Never slowing to even so much as a gallop, KDTU broke into a full-out sprint early on and never let up. They teased back and forth with their instruments and wrapped everyone up in a nice warm blanket of funk that lasted just shy of three hours with no break... just one long set of soul satisfaction.

B. Jordan by Haig Assadourian
With an enlarged set of material that has spanned their career, KDTU proved yet again why they are at the top of their game. Through several personnel changes leading up to the current roster, the Tiny Universe has found its place. Flowing impeccably through an ocean of jazz, each musician compliments the next with the utmost respect and space to take steps into the unknown. Jumping from saxophone to flute, Karl relentlessly turned out the goods, challenging Chris Littlefield on a run of dueling banjo-like horn solos that fluttered along like a butterfly with sore feet, never wanting to rest or endure what might happen if they did. Ron Johnson held it together with amazing craft, switching from five-string bass to an electric upright that Rob Wasserman would have been jealous of. John Staten served as the only break for the band as he dropped jaws with a solo that owned the ears, hips, and feet of all willing, creating a tribal ambiance that triggered sweat from even those sitting in the back of the venue. As the band made their way back onto the stage it was clear that they were nowhere near ending this night.

With songs like "Because of her Beauty" and "Soul Satisfied," the Tiny Universe shelled them all out, leaving not too much to the imagination. As the night grew to a close, the employees had finally given up on trying to get people to sit back in their chairs, and if I am not mistaken, I even saw a waitress or two shaking their groove things as they kept the booze flowing in a manner that just encouraged this house to party like it was our job. With shiny work coming across on the axe all night, Brian Jordan never swayed from the grooves set up for him by the rest of the band. Staying focused and centered with where his guitar was taking him, he lit up and produced that extra WHA that resonated in your shoes. There were several times--I felt it deep in my gut--that reminded me of getting pulled over on the highway, knowing you have something in the car that you shouldn't. You feel your heart drop into your gut and that's when the shakes start coming on, much the same way you feel when Brian tears open the funk, just not in a bad way. Much the opposite, his playing makes your body feel like it's in trouble, or like it's being driven in directions it has never been, but can't wait to get there.

Denson by Haig Assadourian
Every player was on all night, and even by night's end, you could tell that these boys were just getting started. Even the folks that were there just for dinner were blown away and stayed late to eat up what was on the stage, though clearly past their bed times.

Whether playing never-ending late night sets, throwing down in front of thousands at festivals across the country, or bringing it back to small dinner theaters in their hometown, KDTU is a musical chameleon that can make the biggest pessimist believe. They are the real deal. Karl is by far one of the hardest working musicians in the business, and God bless him for honing his craft and passion in the manner he does. His band has finally found its niche and is the backbone of this moment in musical history. Years ago, Karl appeared in Eddie Murphy's movie Coming to America as the sax player in Sexual Chocolate. If there was ever a term to describe the music that is Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, it is just that--Sexual Chocolate. On my way out the door, I couldn't help but smirk. The Coach House never saw this coming; funk is funk, but KDTU is Sexual Chocolate.

Matt Layton
JamBase | SoCal
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[Published on: 2/21/04]

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