Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe + Anders Osborne @ El Rey Theater
Though friends and their friends kept me from getting through the El Rey’s doors until a little after eight last Thursday night, the venue’s curtain was still resolutely down. Wicked Wilson Pickett was unloading “Mustang Sally” over the p.a., followed by Booker T.’s “Green Onions” and other vintage rumpshakers, all foreshadowing the funkolicious goodtime sound my aforementioned pals assured me was soon to leave fuming craters where my ears had been.
Who hasn’t heard such tall talk? Admittedly, I knew almost nothing of the headliner save that they’re hymned to the ether by lovers of instrumental R&B, jam band freaks, disco ducks, jaded young rockists and Sixties nostalgia addicts; sociological subsets you wouldn’t think could stand each other’s company in the checkout line at Ralph’s, much less this neo-glitzy hall where sharing a sociable reefer takes the kind of cooperation you see in old WWII prison-camp movies. The opening act was another mystery fast dispelling as the lights went down.
Swedish-born Anders Osborne is a blocky, grinning fellow who sounds like the best thing to happen to electrified U.S. blues since Stevie Ray Vaughn. Aficionados put his guitar skills alongside Jimi Hendrix’s and Eddie Hazel’s, but that discounts the cheery laid-back singing that slots him among the lazy-lidded likes of Jackson Browne. This tension between axe pyrotechnics and ironic vocal distance made the room go off like a string of patchouli hand grenades and I was suddenly shoulder deep in Angelenos hand-waving like Holy Rollers and shaking booze-oiled hips. The only thing even a hippie purist could possibly find objectionable is Anders & co. play a lot tighter than oldtime heroes like Iron Butterfly and the Grateful Dead ever did, throwing down with increasing bravado before stepping off to peals of shouts and applause.
Headliners Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe wasted little time either getting to the stage or upping the ante. Denson has become near-legendary among jam band freaks since the ex-Lenny Kravitz sideman pioneered what admirers take to be a personal brand of acid jazz that sounds to my ears like the late Sixties Stax-Volt r&b aesthetic on steroids. This long and annihilating set put the lie to the notion Denson’s quit rocking, as the near-capacity room quickly resolved itself into an old-fashioned headbanger’s ball. After a spate of well-received originals, Denson and crew smoothly switched gears into a Ray Charles jamboree, with jolly walrus-like Zach Deputy doing vocalist honors on crunky covers of “Hit the Road, Jack,” “What’d I Say” and more.
Full disclosure demands I confess to adoring Ray Charles the same way Lester Bangs did the sainted Lou Reed or half a million of my pimple-faced peers did Eddie Van Halen. Girlfriends, roommates, even my cat get done out of sleep by my habit of cranking “Busted” or “Let’s Go Get Stoned” to ear-staving levels at odd hours of the night, howling lyrics and barrelhouse pounding the desk while weaving side to side and staring at the ceiling though sunglasses. That being the case, reportorial objectivity went out the door skidding toward Wilshire boulevard the minute Denson and crew laid into “I Got a Woman,” only to come thumping back in with their impeccably played, indifferently received whack at “America the Beautiful.” Perhaps the recent U.S. government shutdown and attendant rise in political Pecksniffery had something to do with the sudden drop in audience ardor and subsequent rush to the bar. Denson drew cheers with a couple of remarks about voting out assholes and the band regained momentum quickly enough.
It was quite a bit after midnight when KDTU’s psilocybin hullabaloo shut down, with the band returning after a short interval with a long hallucinogenic take on the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” before retiring for good. I headed for home and a trawl though the Ray Charles singles box.
– Ron Garmon