Snocore Icicle Ball: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Spearhead, Blackalicious, Nikka Costa
Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Providence, 3/22
Bringing a relative-thaw to the wind-driven New England night, the Snocore Icicle Ball visited Providence, R.I., keeping the nearly-capacity crowd dancing to a hip-hop powered mix of funk, jazz, R&B and soul. Headlined by the acid-jazz powerhouse Karl Denson's Tiny Universe (KDTU), the tour included diverse, accomplished groups like Blackalicous, Spearhead and Nikki Costa (who has apparently achieved some modicom of fame, also played, but to mixed audience reactions).
While not the only crowd pleaser of the evening, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s came out in full force for its headlining set, proving why they deserved headlining honors. Denson plays the alto sax and flute commandingly, yet humbly. Unlike many musicians of his stature, Denson frequently steps back and allows his bandmates their chance to shine. Brian Jordan tore through a foray of powerful guitar solos, Zak Najor and Mike Dillon kept the percussion and drums section at a frantically up-tempo dance pace and David Veith flowed masterfully on keys. The Tiny Universe took the stage past midnight, joining members of Spearhead, Blackalicous and Michael Franti for a freestyle rap session to warm up the crowd. This continued for nearly five minutes, until Denson walked onstage to boisterous applause and began to play.
The opening jam featured Denson ripping away on alto sax, with his band filling in comfortably behind him. After a prolonged stint on the sax, Denson picked up the flute and let loose. This solo gave way to songs like "Rise and Shine" and "Soul Drifter," before Denson welcomed Franti onstage again. Franti and Denson then introduced a new song, titled "Freedom." This solid effort, presumably on the upcoming Karl Denson Tiny Universe’s album, was powerful and pleasing, keeping a hip-hop atmosphere alive.
The night hit a musical climax with the slower, funky tune "Fallin,’" off KDTU’s lone, self-titled album. "Fallin’" opened into a strong jam, spotlighting the talents of bassist Ron Johnson, before flowing into "Groove On," also featuring Franti. The jam-out of "Groove On" was where the drums and percussion section really shined. Exhibiting a bit of youthful exuberance, Denson, Franti and the Tiny Universe broke into a comedic rendition of "Another one bites the dust," singing instead "Another one smokes the blunt." A long, rhythmic percussion and drums jam followed, keeping the audience on their feet. Although no songs from Dance Lesson #2 – Denson’s latest albums – worked their way into the set, the crowd was not disappointed. They finished off with "Power of Soul," and a fun, bouncy rendition of "Brothers and Sisters" served as the encore and closed the evening’s festivities.
Wonderfully collaborative, diverse and danceable, KDTU’s performance was proof why such a relatively young band, fronted by a veteran jazz musician, has achieved such recognition. Without acts like Spearhead and Blackalicous, however, the mood of the evening would have been markedly different. Blackalicous was entertaining, creating a smooth R&B sound through the collaboration of a DJ and four vocalists – two male and two female. Their music was funky, with heavy soul influences present and they set the stage well for the rowdier act, Spearhead. Coming from San Francisco, Spearhead worked the crowd into a frenzy with their pumping, bass-driven hip hop. The two lead singers were strong and, to say the least, active. They danced around stage maniacally, and although sometimes appearing corny, the audience fed off their energy. The band was tight, almost all of the songs were up beat, and the crowd grew livelier as the set went on. The group also took time, as is its wont, to comment politically on the United States’ war on terrorism. After decrying the countries bombing campaign, the lead singer picked up his acoustic guitar and led the audience through a folkish protest song with the chorus, "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb I into peace." The audience sang along in an almost trance-like state, before bidding Spearhead farewell with a powerful round of applause. These two excellent bands set the stage for what many undoubtedly felt was the biggest disappointment of the evening – Nikka Costa. Although she received some positive feedback from the audience, most seemed turned off by her frightening, louder-than-thou vocals. Costa had a beautiful voice, but her singing and dancing made her appear like a gyrating southern maniac. The band that backed her was tight, but never once collaborative. They appeared to be elaborate, but when all was said and done, the band did not distinguish itself. Costa’s performance, however, did not seriously detract from the evening’s mood.
KDTU is a force of human nature, worthy of the numerous accolades they have received over the past few years. They play to all crowds and cover the entire musical spectrum – sailing smoothly from jazz, funk and hip-hop, to soulful R&B. KDTU performs better live than just about any group today. And Denson, while arguably the most talented member in the band, is not greedy. He allows everyone in his band to shine and they live up to the challenge. It's hard to imagine an audience this group's radiant music would not please.