Karl Denson’s first album in five years, “Gnomes & Badgers,” is a personal and political powerhouse that hits hard from the opening track. “What If You Knew” is a funk-and-soul pep talk to himself and his connection to the universe. Trust me and listen, he’s saying. This is gonna be worth it.
Denson was on tour with The Rolling Stones; he replaced the late saxophonist Bobby Keys in 2014.
Sept. 14 | 9 p.m.
Crystal Bay Casino | Crystal Bay, Nev.
“Those guys are playing really good, playing better than ever,” says Denson. “It’s humbling and super exciting.”
After playing for up to 80,000 people at football stadiums across the country, Denson is looking forward to touring clubs with his band, Tiny Universe. He plays the Crown Room at Crystal Bay Casino on Sept. 14.
“Gnomes and Badgers” is a reference to two creatures that just can’t seem to get along with each other, kind of like the dividing lines ever-expanding in our country’s contemporary political discourse.
“Writing lyrics and doing vocals is a whole other beast, so it’s been super counterintuitive, and this record is me landing on my feet in terms of that.” — Karl Denson
“It’s about border, boundaries, laws and love,” says Denson.
Album centerpiece, “Change My Way,” digs deep into the current crisis of mistrust and violence plaguing our country.
“It’s about people getting off their high horse and listening to each other,” says Denson. “It’s a message to people who call themselves Christians to be more compassionate and be more aware of who Christ is. The [music] video is about the whole immigrant crisis going on.”
Denson was raised in a nondenominational Christian church in Southern California. Although he doesn’t attend regularly these days, he still abides by the Golden Rule: treat others how you’d like to be treated.
“For that instance, you’d have to put yourself in other people’s shoes sometimes,” he says. “These people are coming from Central America. They’re not carrying a 2-year-old thousands of miles to wreck your party. They are coming in need. It’s just like with black lives matter. They don’t even have empathy for someone who lost their kid. We’re becoming bad.”
“Time to Pray” is another song on the album directed toward what Denson sees as a dangerous gap between the compassionate teachings of Jesus and the political trajectory of the Christian faith in our country.
“It’s about winning at all costs,” he says. “I have tons of friends who are church-going people who are following this orange guy down the road willingly and not for a minute having a pause for what he’s actually saying.”
Denson believes the damaged relations between the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere could be healed through aid and diplomacy, rather than power and animosity.
“They’re our frickin’ neighbors,” he says. “It’s all just hate. Now that we’ve got these killings going on. I’m still seeing the same apathy from these people.”
On a compelling and emotional album, Denson get a little help from his friends, including Chuck Leavell, Lukas Nelson and Anders Osborne, whom he refers to as his songwriting mentor.
“Sometimes I get these songs that are very complete, but I don’t know how to finish them,” Denson explains. “He’s kind of been my best foil for bouncing a great idea off and he always comes up with the right way to do it. When I take him songs, I feel like he comes out with a finished product.”
Lately, after a 30-plus-year musical career, which has included stints with Lenny Kravitz and The Greyboy Allstars amongst others, Denson has been focusing more on his compositional artistry.
“This last phase of my writing has been really hard over a lot of years,” he says. “I listened to some of my jazz stuff from the early 90s. It’s very heady traditional jazz and I feel like I did a really good job of writing that kind of music. When I started writing soul and funk, I figured out how to do it in an interesting way. Writing lyrics and doing vocals is a whole other beast, so it’s been super counterintuitive, and this record is me landing on my feet in terms of that. Then I feel like I’m a bit more complete and becoming more eclectic again.” | crystalbaycasino.com