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Published: 2017/02/21
by Matt Inman

Karl Denson’s Ever-Expanding Universe

Photo by Dino Perrucci

Karl Denson has found success in his long career as both a celebrated side man and an accomplished band leader, from his days with Lenny Kravitz, to his solo efforts and ongoing work in Greyboy Allstars and Tiny Universe, to his more recent stints with The Rolling Stones. The multi-instrumentalist and singer has adapted to several different genres and surrounding musicians, a skill that was highlighted during last month’s Jam Cruise, the festival-at-sea which has hosted Denson for every single one of its 15 years, where Denson notched two KDTU sets and multiple sit-ins, including an impromptu tribute to the music of the Grateful Dead.

Onboard the Norwegian Pearl somewhere in the Caribbean, Denson talks about the evolution of the cruise, his recent forays into the world of the Dead, his close relationship with the members of Slightly Stoopid and what it’s like to sit down fo =r dinner with Keith Richards.

Can you talk about how Jam Cruise has evolved, how it’s changed, in its 15 years?

Well I think that the coolest thing about this—it was probably around year 10 where I had kind of lowered my expectations based on the same lineup every year, pretty much, with a few variations. But there was a distinct change in musicianship at about year 10, and I just heard everybody blossom. It was really crazy. All of a sudden, Stanton [Moore] was playing really good jazz brushes, and Robert Walter’s always killing, and Skerik…It was just like the musicianship got that much better, so it made it that much more fun to play with everybody. So I think that’s been the coolest thing about this boat is just there’s some really high musicianship on the boat.

Speaking of which, one of the best acts I’ve seen here were the Benevento/Russo Duo. Have you played with them?

Yeah! It’s like a bucking bronco—like riding the mechanical bull. They’re almost un-sit-in-able! You know what I mean? Because even when they give you something simple, it’s still fricking weird!

They’re impressive, and they’re obviously just having a blast up there. That’s the best.

Oh yeah, yeah. I’ve been having Marco play on some of my other projects, I helped the sax player for Slightly Stoopid write produce his record, and we sent a bunch of tracks to Marco to just put flavorings on them. They was these really big compositions, and I just said “You’re the connective tissue.” And man, when we finally started mixing it and started pulling all the parts out and figuring out what was there, it was some of the funniest shit you ever heard, man. I mean, literally him just going like “Ranghranghranghrangh!”

You were part of the Grateful Dead tribute set yesterday, and you’ve also played with Phil Lesh recently. Can you talk about your Dead connection and how you got into it, or if you were a big fan?

I am not a Deadhead, which is really interesting this many years out. I was just saying that to Robert Walter yesterday. It’s really cool that I’ve been playing with Phil. I did a summer with RatDog back in 2000, and just the fact that everybody loves the Dead in this whole jamband scene which I’m a part of has forced me to take a look at the Dead, and I started figuring out what was good about them. They write great songs, and they’re all kind of weird, a little skewy, you know? But I think the coolest thing is—it’s like the Duo, Marco and Joe, they’re not Deadheads, and now they’re doing the Almost Dead thing, because of Furthur. The Dead is the connective tissue to the whole thing, because even for us who didn’t grow up listening to the Dead, it still is the glue that holds the community together, and so every once in a while, we have to pay homage to it. We did it for my 60th birthday–we did “Here Comes Sunshine” and “Viola Lee Blues,” just because it makes sense just for the scene.

What was it like coming into that music not having listened to it much, especially playing with people who really know it, or even created it themselves?

For me, technically, it’s very simple—it’s like just playing the blues. But it reminds me of Brazilian music, of bossa nova, because it’s all similar changes, but if you don’t know the poem, you don’t know the song. So it’s really about learning the poems, which is the cool part of it. So in the process of traveling through this thing, I’ve learned 10 of the poems now, so it’s becoming more fun.

Can you talk a bit more about the 60th birthday celebration and some of the guests you brought up for it?

It was super fun, man. Mike D[illon] played percussion the whole night. The cool thing was, you got Luther [Dickinson], who’s from North Mississippi Allstars, Jackie Greene, Ivan [Neville], and Stoopid, and they’re all very different. The coolest part was that it managed to really sound congruous the whole way through. Luther came up, just dropped some blues and everybody got comfortable. Then I think we played “Viola Lee Blues” with Jackie, and that was just kind of the next step of that. We did “Here Comes Sunshine” and let it stretch out, and then we moved to Ivan and did some soul, and then went back to Stoopid and they did a nice little set in the middle, and then we went back to Luther and did some more blues. It was a perfect night; it really made sense, and it was just one of those things, playing with cats who had been playing long enough where they get it. They know what they do, and they know what they don’t do, and so they do what they do and they don’t get in the way of other people doing what they do.

Was there a lot of rehearsal for that?

Well, the band, we would get together at soundcheck for a couple of days while we were out on our tour a couple weeks before that, and started running things. And then, the day before, we came to San Francisco and ran everything by ourselves. Then, day of, the guys came in and we ran their tunes. So yeah, it was really smooth. Luther didn’t even know we were learning his tunes until he got there. We were like “Oh we’re gonna play ‘Drop Down Mama,’” and he’s like “Oh nice!”

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