As you drive up toLake Tahoe, signs along the highway tell you, 4,000 feet, then 5,000 feet, then 6,000 – and that’s just to the flat part! Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and the Jackie Greene Band reached new heights at Friday night’s Star Sessions music series at the Northstar Resort – it would be tough to actually reach the stars out there in the universe, but surely the sound carried higher than the Pine trees.
Northstar’s summer concert series takes place right in the center of the village. The stage is positioned at one end with bleachers at the other, a large open general space in the center for those who like to sit (low chairs encouraged), cabanas along either side, food and drink stations, and a good sized open space up in front of the stage for those who like to get real close and dance! It was just a gorgeous day, low 80’s, sun shining and a slight breeze – really no need for the extra layers I brought, only having to toss on that long sleeved shirt about midnight.
I arrived just a bit after 6:00 p.m. to hear Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe just starting to warm up the crowd – most were enjoying a seat, a glass of wine or beer, and a snack. Soon enough, a group began to gather in front of the stage, clearly unable to sit any longer. Up front was quite a mix, young and old dancing and smiling and thoroughly enjoying the sound that can only be described as some sort of funk-jazz-o-jam. Hard to put your finger on their sound, hard to put any label on that sound – I think I heard someone say that they were playing notes not heard before. I might have to agree.
I believe the first time I saw Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was opening for Rat Dog atBerkeley’s Greek Theater back in 2001. I never forgot that set they played, I remember thinking that the band was really incredible and the sound they were giving the crowd was something unheard – couldn’t really label it and it felt like they were on the verge of a new kind of jazz music. I heard someone once call it “freedom jazz”, which is a pretty good description of how the crowd seems to look when they play.
His website says the current band consists of Karl Denson on sax, flute, and vocals (Karl used to be in Lenny Kravitz’s band and also helped co-found The Greyboy Allstars), DJ Williams on lead guitar, Chris Littlefield on trumpet and vocals, John Staten – perhaps the happiest drummer I’ve seen, Chris Stillwell holding down the bass, and David Veith on the keys.
They took the stage for about an hour and a half, and seemed to utterly enjoy every minute of it, giving out some pretty big smiles even having to face the sun nearly the whole set – DJ’s funky neon green sunglasses seriously had him lookin’ even more cool than he clearly is! It was electrifying music, funky feel to a jazz root that really made you want to move something – your head, a shoulder or elbow or two, each and every toe, and of course your behind! The thumping bass kick drum, if you stood right in front, made your clothes move with the music.
There was no set list for the band, just following Karl’s lead, forming the night as they opened up to the crowd’s energy which was happily given back. Mr. Denson’s talents allow him to sooth you with a saxophone, entice you with a jazz flute, and serenade you with a pretty incredible voice. Their hardcore fans seemed to have no trouble trekking to see them in Tahoe, and I overheard quite a number of Jackie Greene fans remark that they may have just found a new sound to enjoy. They laid down sick jams, open and free, made ya feel each note because they mean it – and boy do they make you feel!
The headliner, the Jackie Greene Band, hit the stage about 8:30 and playing solid through to about 10:00 p.m., Northstar’s quitin’ time. For the most part, it was a good set list, crowd pleasers with one or two surprises. You can always count on that with this band – they are tight, they know each other well, they’ve been together long enough and know Jackie’s songs well enough to be more than just “reliably on”.
You can count on seeing a great show when they hit the stage – some shows generate more incredible moments than others, hand it to you on a red hot platter and leave ya scorched. Everyone I saw or spoke too seemed to all be wearing the same grin when it was all said and done. The venue’s lighting, for this photographer, could’ve been better and maybe their sound was a bit loud, for those in the center with those huge monitors or whatever they were that encouraged my stomach to dance.
The opener was “Hollywood”, a tune with a nice long lead to a beat that makes you want to strut down the street with attitude. Is it about a city or what the city does to you; either way, it gives you a bit of attitude.
Before their set started, I saw that Jackie tuned up the Dobro (or Resonator for some) but didn’t end up playing it. As a matter of fact, I saw the set list after the show and they really didn’t play what they initially planned. Maybe the climb up to Tahoe, the ride through the trees, and taking a ride along on Karl’s magic carpet had them changing their mood.
Next we got a nod to the Beatles, saluting with “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Taxman” – and they know how to rock those two classics for certain, drawing on the electric sounds to put you in the space of tomorrow while still being in today.
The jam extended and led into a smooth “Mexican Girl”, which then morphed into Zack starting a bit of a tribal thump over and over on the drums, then Jeremy joins in on the bass to bring it harder, and you hear Nathan and Jackie start to rip on the guitars with Steve holding the keys steady – “I’m not gonna be civil, I’m not gonna watch my tongue or what I say…….” Gotta love that opening line of “I’m So Gone” – a song of demanding something more out of life, something sacred and real, and letting the world know it. The crescendo of the guitars after the last line, “I’m holding out for something I can feeeeeeel!”, and then the scrubbing of the strings, almost like a stomp of the feet, letting you know this song is done.
I had a bit of a treat, my first time hearing “Another Love Gone Bad” – it’s a bit on the lighter side compared to the heavier rock and blues that preceded it, reminds me a bit of the sweeter side of the 60’s, or a sound I can’t put my finger on just yet. But, then, just when maybe you thought they would keep it softer for a minute, we hear the strumming start, then the matching riff between Nathan and Jackie that can only be “Till the Light Comes”. I just love this song, the way the guitar just demands you open up to not just hear it but move to it……. And then it slows down to this sweeter feel, softer, as if they turned off the lights and Jackie is now alone on stage, but they didn’t and he’s not. Jackie’s voice gets a bit airy and the harmonies hit you with a warmth and love that washes over your head, down to your toes…. And then he picks up the bottleneck slide and rips the sound open and up the neck of the guitar, demanding you again to feel the mood.
At some point after “Medicine” or “Farewell So Long, Goodbye,” I notice Jackie take his cell phone out of his back pocket, look something up and turn to Jeremy. A few seconds of tuning, looks at Nathan and mouths “moment”, which can only indicate “Moment of Temporary Color”. In his song book, Jackie says this song came to life during his time with Phil Lesh & Friends, after performing “Bird Song” and being struck by its beauty. Like something that comes and goes so quickly, like a song is only a moment in time, temporary by nature – I love the line, “I will dream out loud, among the color and the clouds, is where I’ll be”. It also includes a verse from a Mother Hips song, “Mission in Vain” (“…the purpose of my mission was to see the ocean, I have not seen the ocean or tasted the rain….”), a song Jackie was invited by Tim Bluhm to play the organ on for the studio version.
I noted earlier they didn’t quite follow the written set list, lots of communication on stage the whole show, certainly telling us plans had changed. I must remark, when the band can just go with it like that, it shows ya there is a connection, not just to the songs, but to each other.
Jackie commonly tosses in homage to others, like the earlier treats by The Beatles. Northstar brought out few Dead songs, namely a hopin’ “Deal” that contained a few raw moments and then got a little groovy, showed a little attitude – I think I even saw the security guard movin’ a bit! We also were treated to “New Speedway Boogie”. The song begins or the train pulls out of the track, you see Jackie movin’ a bit on stage, playing with the cords from his guitar, getting ready to tell a story ‘bout spending time on the mountain, running with gold, strange happenings goin’ down, dying of cold in the heat of the sun……… but one way or another……… and we get this long, rock ‘n blues jam – will they finish it or leave ya hangin’? Like the Dead used to do sometimes. But, Jackie doesn’t leave ya hanging – throws you a safety line every time.
This time we were tossed a crazy “Spooky Tina”, which is really is just a fast dance jive, makes ya want to run around with scissors, even though you shouldn’t! This leads to a long jam, noodeling around with teases of The Dead’s “Eyes” or “The Other One” and maybe that “Bird Song” we want to hear, and even a sneak in of something Allman Brothers-like, sounds familiar and comforting that you can close your eyes to and forget about the world around you, if just for a minute. Maybe they are just inventing the sweetness as they go, but it just works so well, they just play together so well, that it covers you like a warm blanket or a long hug – just hits the spot. But, you hear Nathan connect to the guitar harder and louder, and “New Speedway Boogie” comes back around and you realize, no, you haven’t left the venue at all, well, physically anyway. Well, the darkness had to give, bringing the song to a close with guitar dueling between Jackie and Nathan, playing directly at each other to force that last song up to the trees!
Rounding out the night, they came back out for an encore and decided on “Gone Wanderin’” which always gets the crowd singing and dancing around – Jackie’s sing-a-long song! Always impressive to those less coordinated is the necessary dexterity to sing while playing an instrument, but Mr. Greene takes it a step further and adds in the harmonica. One of the popular songs for him, a radio hit have you, it certainly helps to get your skip on!
I definitely heard a few Karl Denson fans in the crowd become new fans of the Jackie Greene Band that night, and vice versa – people who hadn’t heard Karl before were really blown away by this guy and his not so Tiny Universe. The show was seriously cheap for two great bands – and free parking for those who didn’t mind walking a few minutes. Another day has come and gone, another Jackie Greene Band show, another new fan in the crowd – sounds like a typical day for Mr. Greene.
Jackie Greene Band: Hollywood, Tomorrow Never Knows > Taxman, Mexican Girl, I’m So Gone, Deal, Another Love Gone Bad, Till the Light Comes, Medicine, Farewell So Long Goodbye, Moment of Temporary Color, New Speedway Boogie > Spooky Tina > Jam > New Speedway Boogie. E. Gone Wanderin’