What a way to start the weekend early!!! Bringing in the west coast funk for the first of two shows at Chicago’s House of Blues, Karl Denson and his Tiny Universe certainly lived up to their reputation for knowing how to get a party going. Supporting KDTU on this abbreviated Midwestern jaunt was Karl’s former Greyboy Allstars compatriot Robert Walter, backed by the 20th Congress.
The evening began with the 20th Congress taking the stage around 9:00. Although expectations were high, we couldn’t have guessed that we would witness more than four hours of music before the funk would subside. As the house lights went down at the HoB, Walter and company slid right into a slow funk groove and were rocking before we knew it. Using the songs from Money Shot! and the Greyboy Allstars catalog as a platform for extended improvisations, keyboardist Walter, saxman and flautist Cheme Gastelum, bassist Chris Stillwell, drummer George Sluppick, and percussionist Chuck Prada not only prepared us for the inevitable funk of the Tiny Universe, but also caught the audience’s attention as more than just an opening act: these guys were taking the initial steps to tear the roof off!!! Highlights of the 20th Congress’s Thursday night set include a strong rendition of the title track from Money Shot! segueing into and out of the familiar funk classic It’s Your Thing.
Following this monster one-hour set by RW20C, crowd energy was sizzling. Given the ever-fluctuating state of the line-up and stylings of the Tiny Universe, it was difficult to predict what kind of music Mr. Denson would provide for the remainder of the night. The first set of this night would serve as a preview of what was we had in store for the rest of Thursday and Friday. With a line-up featuring Karl on flute and saxaphones (tenor and alto), Brian Jordan on guitar, trumpets by Andy Cleaves, keyboards by David Veith, Rob Johnson on bass, E.J. Rodriguez on percussion, and Eric Bolivar on drums, the Tiny Universe has developed a uniquely percussive and electronic sound to complement its focus on funk and groove. Moving in and out of ambient sound like I have not heard them do before, it was obvious that bandleader Denson has been working the hell out of these guys – the results are tremendous!
Set One of KDTU began with Robert Walter sitting in with David Veith on keys. After a tune or two, Walters slipped off stage, and the cohesiveness of this road-tested unit became apparent. Moving between numbers from his previous solo albums, as well as some unfamiliar selections from Dance Lesson #2, Denson and his hand-picked crew of jazz-funk veterans motivated the crowd into a frenzy of flailing arms and shaking booties. Stopping only long enough to catch a quick breath, KDTU powered for two hours before leaving the stage for the first time. For many bandleaders, a two hour set would be enough to call it a night... but not for Mr. Denson. This night was just beginning.
As the curtains on the HoB stage opened for the night’s second set, the eerie yet languid sounds of a Karl flute solo filled the room. Morphing into a Arabic/Ambient jam (later announced as James Brown in India), the band seemed to be showing off a bit of its new sound. Tuning in with some Milesesque trumpet work, Andy Cleaves took the reins of the jam about midway through the twenty minute selection. The addition of Veith’s electronic samplers created a 21st Century feel to some ancient-rooted music.
Not one to stick to a single musical style throughout the show, the Tiny Universe also displayed their rock roots with an electrifying performance of Hendrix’s Spanish Castle Magic. Although this song would make a repeat performance in night two of KDTU’s stand at the House of Blues, the guitar work from this version was particularly inspired. Drawing from the sonic nether regions first tapped by Jimi, Brian Jordan seemed intent on proving that his playing consists of more than just James Brown and boogaloo licks – and prove it he did!
To cap off another two hour set, Karl returned to his Greyboy song catalogue to rip up his anthem Tenor Man. Highlighted by an extended percussion jam (with E.J. going berserk on the timbales!) and a lengthy tenor saxophone solo, this number got the crowd (still in full force) going for one last time this evening. Reveling in the crowd’s appreciation and dedication (it was 2:30 am on a week night), Karl urged those in attendance to come back for some more of the dirty stuff the following night... advice more than just a few of us were sure to heed.
Walking into the House of Blues for the second night in a row, I was not surprised to see many familiar faces from the previous evening’s funk/boogaloo/jazz/rock bonanza. I guess Karl must have convinced them with his closing words (and certainly his playing!) to come back for seconds! Along with these folks there were plenty of new friendly faces, enough to pack the venue to the gills. And if you thought it was hot in the audience before the show, the music began and the mercury shot right through the thermometer!
Opening act Robert Walter’s 20th Congress once again blew the audience away, setting the tone for an evening of maniacal funk. Starting out of the gates at full tilt, Walter and his trusty crew rarely relented their breakneck pace throughout the duration of their hourlong set. Again, sticking mainly to the material from Money Shot! (with a few oldies thrown in), the 20th Congress threw it down for the second night in a row! Highlights of their short (but oh so sweet) set included Shemp Time and a raucous version of Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times, complete with wailing guitar-like sax solos from Cheme Gastelum. Before leaving the stage to a hearty applause, Walter reminded the audience of his upcoming return to the Windy City, with two scheduled Double Door on April 13 & 14.
After a relatively short break between bands—made brief in part by the bands’ sharing of equipment—the Tiny Universe made its way to the stage for the first of two tremendous sets of music. Within the first few bars of the opener, Karl had the audience grinding their hips in sync with the groove. Set One saw a handful of unfamiliar tunes (I’m guessing they’re from the upcoming album), as well as recognizable numbers such as Fallin’ Like a Stone and Check out Your Mind. Before we had a chance to break stride, a ninety-minute set had blurred past us, kickstarting the heart and loosening up the mind.
After a brief intermission (I guess Karl wanted to PLAY tonight!), the Tiny Universe hit the stage again, this time with Robert Walter sharing keyboard duties with David Veith. Lurking in the background was a special, none other than Liquid Soul trumpeter Ron Haynes! Giving a Chicago flair to the San Diego based septet, Haynes and Andy Cleaves (trumpet, KDTU) began to duel during a jam out of Walt’s 1st Step. Following another funky tune with the accompaniment of Haynes, Karl Denson beckoned for the remaining members of the 20th Congress, Chris Stillwell, Cheme “Chimichanga” Gastelum, Chuck Prada and George Sluppick to come to the stage. As Haynes slipped offstage, Denson remarked, “Damn, that Ron Haynes played so good it made me mad! You know what happens when I get mad, right?”
“REVENGE!” And with that, the assembled supergroup busted into a sweltering rendition of the James Brown classic The Payback! Dueling saxaphones, dueling percussion, dueling keyboards, with each successive band member trying to get revenge for the funk laid down by the previous. This was the true highlight of the show, dropping the serious funk on a flabbergasted crowd. There wasn’t anything to be said but “HOT DAMN!”
Following The Payback, Chicago was blessed with the second appearance of Spanish Castle Magic. Although not quite as sweltering as the previous night’s version, this Hendrix cover certainly maintained the full-throttle tempo of the show. Following the rocked out cover, Ron Haynes made a second appearance to play on the title track from Karl Denson’s upcoming Blue Note Debut, Dance Lesson #2. A jazzy number, #2 allowed Haynes and Denson the opportunity to showcase their licks in tandem, and they did not disappoint. The set then closed with a rowdy version of When I Got My Groove On, with Karl blowing so hard during his solo that I thought his eyes might pop right out of his head! Working the crowd into a frenzy before the final notes of the tune, Karl could not be so cruel as to leave without an encore, and the merciful bandleader satiated the audiences hunger for one more song. Again pulling from his upcoming release, Denson made sure that each and every audience member shook their booty ’til it couldn’t shake no more.
What more can be said? Karl, Robert, and their amazing bands once again proved to be true funkmasters, kicking out the bootylicious grooves for the always appreciative Chicago fans. So next time either of these road warriors rolls through your town, make sure you’re ready to get down.
JamBase Chicago Correspondent
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