A Stones fan’s letdown at jam-happy tribute
I didn’t have expectations—high or low—when I headed out to see Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe at the Sierra Nevada Big Room last Sunday. If I’d ever heard a note Denson played, I hadn’t taken note of it. I haven’t listened to much of Lenny Kravitz’s stuff, and I wasn’t familiar with Denson’s contribution to that stellar ensemble. And, truth to tell, I’d never heard of Tiny Universe, the group Denson is on tour with, in part, to showcase his love of the Rolling Stones by performing the band’s 1972 classic, Sticky Fingers.
Like lots of old timers, I still hold that band in high regard. Messin’ with the Stones seems akin to directing a remake of Citizen Kane. It takes chutzpah, and if you’re going to do it, you’d better be pretty damn good.
By my lights, Denson and his group weren’t good enough. That’s a minority opinion, however, perhaps attributable to the fact that I was stone sober, and also not stoned, a distinct anomaly at the gathering.
Guitarist Anders Osborn opened the show, taking the stage 10 minutes late—which is pretty punctual for a rock band, but just about unheard of for a Big Room show. He took a good five minutes tuning up before launching into a number that turned out to be a Cream-y series of riffs, with the bass player flaying the air with his hair and pogo-sticking around the stage, jamming with Anders on long acid runs that finally turned out to be “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a 15-minute extended take on the Dylan classic that made not a lick of sense. The spirit of that elegiac tune was lost. It was sound and fury, signifying nothing, and, despite the ampage and the energy, it was boring and ill-rendered.
After less than half an hour on stage, Osborn cleared off, followed by a half-hour intermission, a big chunk of time for audience members to make trips to the parking lot to maintain their highs, or take ’em up a notch, leaving them in fine fettle by the time Tiny Universe took the stage, a six-piece band fronted by Denson on sax and Chris Littlefield on trumpet.
The band led off with a couple of straight-ahead jazz compositions that heightened my expectations, putting me in mind of The Jazz Crusaders. When keyboardist David Veith lent piano licks to the two horn players, they were reminiscent of Joe Zawinul playing with Cannonball and Nat Adderley. And Denson turned in a really gorgeous flute solo that anchored the band’s version of “So Satisfied.”
But, when Tiny Universe launched into its reprise of Sticky Fingers, my hopes evaporated, even as excitement on the jam-packed dance floor accelerated. Osborn returned to the stage, adding his guitar chops and vocals as Denson’s crew did their groove-band thing on “Brown Sugar,” “Sister Morphine,” “Wild Horses” and a 10-minute extended riff on “You Got to Move,” all the while making me appreciate how good Keith and Mick were.
The band was often ragged, occasionally hitting sour notes, with some players straying off key. It was like a cover band at a Holiday Inn on a Saturday night in Omaha. When I finally gave it up and left at 10, they were still pumping out repetitions meant to take the crowd higher. And succeeding. I exited through a purple haze and a gaggle of young tokers milling around in front of the brewery. Maybe you don’t have to be young and high to enjoy a jam band on an off night, but it surely helps.