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Playing Around with Karl Denson's Tiny Universe featuring Jimmy Herring

Can you recall the days of running to join your friends on the playground? It looked so fun you just jumped right in until you were dragged out of there, practically kicking and screaming by some adult? Welcome to Karl Denson’s Tiny Playground. The fun’s just begun.

Driving up Alexander Street to park my car near the Neighborhood Theatre last Friday night felt like being back in the old neighborhood again. I haven’t been to a show there in a while, but I love those venues where you already know the good parking spots and back entrances. However, this night the street was much more crowded than it usually is. Looks like the same old rowdy crowd (and then some) is back again for Karl Denson and our beloved Jimmy Herring. The Widespread Panic stickers are plentiful on the street.

After Groove 8 got the crowd pleasantly warmed up and thoroughly pumped for an evening of jamming, the crowd thickened up front. Folks who had made the mistake of stepping outside for a smoke mentioned that it was like stepping back into a different venue because it seemed that every inch of space in the Theatre was taken. Everyone assumed their places as the venue started to heat up, in a foreshadowing of the steamy night we were in for.

I was pumped to get the “Power Soul” opener, even if they opened with that in two nights before in Athens. It’s such a commanding song, everyone just jumped right in with both feet. It got pretty hot in there quickly, and Karl D had to remove his suit jacket. Can we just take a second to say that we should nickname him Karl Bench-son? Because dude has some huge arms and has clearly been putting in some time at the gym. No wonder he can slay that saxophone so well.

In the middle of “Just Got Paid”, trumpeter Chris Littlefield offered Karl a different shaker instrument to use, rather than the tambourine Karl was holding. Karl laughed, tried the instrument, shook his head, and went back to his tambourine. Without missing a beat. Who does that? How many musicians on his level are willing to joke around mid-set like that, AND have the professionalism to keep the show going seamlessly? I was glad to be front and center on the rail to witness their back and forth.

It’d be cliché at this point to say that it was like watching a musical conversation between the musicians throughout the evening. BUT. It was. Except that it was like watching a conversation between people who spoke perfectly and concisely and with such skill, that you just want to listen to them go on all night.

All of us Widespread Panic fans had been warned that this wasn’t a “Jimmy show” and don’t expect to feel like you’re at a Panic concert. Well, of course, we kept hearing Widespread tunes in our heads and another girl and I both shouted out “Ribs n’ Whiskey!” when I’m CONVINCED they teased a few notes, just to toy with us.

However, it was AMAZING to see Jimmy play with this ensemble. As a die-hard Panic fan of 20+ years, you come to expect every nuance and note. Even in an improvised jam, you know where the melody is going. But this night was like watching “the White Wizard” reincarnated as a totally different musical genius. He was so happy and the funk environment was perfectly attuned to showcase his skills without turning it into a round of Guitar Hero. Just like when you get to see Jimmy perform with Aquarium Rescue Unit, you’re reminded that this quiet, gentle soul possesses some of the hottest fingers to ever grace a fretboard.

By “Some Skunk Funk”, I was near heatstroke and had to step outside. Even on the curb, though, the music was infectious and you’d catch yourself bustin’ a move on 36th Street. Unfortunately for my poor tired legs, the funk didn’t stop and you just can’t seem to sit still when KDTU is grooving.

The final song before the encore was “Satisfied”, and they could’ve just finished then as they did in Athens, so perfect was the evening. I danced my heart out to both that song and then “NYC” before the staff finally turned on the house lights and ejected all of our reluctant souls out the door. We made a quick stop to talk to Jimmy behind the venue and then I wearily dragged myself to my car.

And when you go home from a show like this, sweaty and happy, you realize just how tired you are. How hard you’ve played and how many bumps and bruises you unknowingly took along the way. And just like in elementary school, you smile at the memory of so joyfully wearing yourself out in the boisterous company of your favorite friends and strangers. I can’t wait for my next opportunity to enter the Tiny Universe.