ALO | 12.31.08 | San Francisco

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller

ALO :: 12.31.08 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA

ALO :: 12.31 :: San Francisco
There's so much ontological weight hanging on New Year's Eve that it's hard to step outside of the expectations and backward glancing and just have a good time. Sure, it's an artificial construct, a turn of the calendar page, a night like any other. Except it isn't and pretending it is will just set you up for a cranky night while others revel around you. So, I long ago figured out that the best strategy was to focus on having some fun and on being surrounded by human beings that don't make me regret our ancestors ever crawled from the oceans and became the iPod using, automobile driving creatures we are today. If a splash of newness could also be had well all the better. These criteria in mind, I found myself a cozy stranger amongst ALO's faithful at The Independent, a man almost completely unfamiliar with their work but bitten by a smile bug each time I'd seen them perform. It was their mesmerizing, elastic exploration at this year's Las Tortugas Festival (read the review here) that brought me fully on board and made me sense that a New Year's Eve in their company might be a lovely thing. Turns out it is and then some.

While I may not know ALO I do know Dan Lebowitz (guitar, vocals) and Steve Adams (bass, vocals) through their work with Big Light and many others, and what I've found is an unshakeable, ever-stimulating musical sense in both guys. They play totally pro but also flip the script on rock and pop in a really winning way. Rarely showy and always enjoyable, their music making made me want to check out the company they keep in ALO. What I found, in very broad terms, is a band with a crazy amount of hooks, buckets of charm and talent and a slightly loopy P.O.V. that gifts their tunes with a nifty weirdo undercurrent. Take opener "Shapeshifter," for example. Ostensibly, a groovy love song but this lover's invitation exhorts, "Every now and then/ I get the feeling I'm a piece of clay/ I'm so supple/ Bend my legs anyway you want." Gumby as Romeo is just odd but no less radio ready or positively infectious than more orthodox pathways to the heart. And again and again on this auspicious night, ALO exhibited similar sleight of hand, a knowing dexterity with the mechanics of pure pop songwriting and lively, fluid jamming. Where a cut began it rarely ended and, at least for a neophyte like me, I rarely saw the twists coming. Simply put, it's exciting stuff that's not remotely hard to get into.

T. Garrod w/ ALO :: 12.31
Dressed as sharp as prosperous Prohibition-era smooths in suits and ties, the quartet – rounded out by Dave Brogan (drums, vocals) and Zach Gill (keys, lead vocals) – radiated an air of joviality that warmed and raised the room, a space just perfect for letting one know they're out at a show but not so vast they feel lost, a delightful clubhouse with great sound and lighting that's understandably becoming a fave for both local and touring acts when they hit S.F. And the place was stuffed with smiling faces, kind souls that fetched drinks from the open bar for you and said, "Excuse me" like they meant it when they stepped on your foot. The spark of this niceness clearly stems from the guys onstage, and something about their music manages to hold this light without succumbing to the sticky clichés and syrupy sentiments of so much so called "feel good music."

Some of the credit goes to their active engagement with a wide range of sounds, able to work in '70s jazz-fusion, one-drop reggae, honky tonk bop and more into what are ostensibly rock ditties. Right away, I was struck by the unforced nature of their improvisations and instrumental tangents, which moved like water on the ground, finding a way that didn't force anything, riding the natural ridges of the music, rising and falling with easy gravity. I know many tunes ran in excess of 7-10 minutes but you'd never know it by feel. Never once did I find myself looking at a clock or wondering if they'd get on with it (a feeling I inevitably experience at least a few times at most "jam" heavy events).

Such is their ease of play that guests Trevor Garrod (Tea Leaf Green), Bo Carper (New Monsoon) and Sean Leahy slid into the mix like they were lubricated – no resistance as they got into stroke. Later, the horns and guest vocalists that came up for the witching hour cover charge of "Auld Lang Syne," "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," "Baby Baby" and "Midnight Hour" (a fully understandable assortment that fit the occasion but ultimately felt a little flat by comparison to their own material and its handling) were equally excellent, but it was the chemistry and naked camaraderie of the quartet that was most compelling. It's not a dig against their visitors, who all acquitted themselves very well, but what holds the ear with ALO is how these four dudes pass the potato, moving from Gill's rough silk voice to Lebo's high wire slide work to Adams' subtle bass curves and around to Brogan's embracing beats. There's solos aplenty but it's ultimately a shared texture, a collective vibe one walks away with, a feeling of togetherness marbled into the music as a whole.

ALO :: 12.31 :: San Francisco
That said, during second set opener "Feel It," I found myself staring all moon-eyed at Lebo as notes just rolled and rolled off his guitar as long as he damn well pleased. There's something cellularly satisfying about his tone and his skill at editing and altering the flow with his nimble fingers. And really, the other three guys possess similar skill and acumen on their own instruments, but like any red blooded American boy raised on rock 'n' roll I can't help but genuflect before guitarists. I'm not proud of that, but that takes nothing away from Lebowitz's ability to knock my dick in the dirt every time I see him play, and I was right dusty after three sets on NYE.

Those three sets are worth noting because the first contained just seven selections, the second only six and the final a kingly ten. I think it may be my age (I'm officially middle aged as of a few days ago) but I have less and less patience for noodling. I want my musicians to have solid ideas and get on with executing them. I don't mind lengthy pieces but they have to do something throughout or the connection is lost for me. So, ALO managed to present a modest number of songs but imbued each with character and genuine flavor. On the surface, ALO is a touch poppier than I usually go these days but they're so damn good at snappy verses, clever bridges and all the other nuts 'n' bolts of great songwriting that they kept me tuned in despite not knowing a single song in any substantive way before this gig. It was the merits of the music and the men making it that did the job.

Sometimes we all say things we don't mean/ But that don't mean we ain't family.

In my early days with JamBase I wrote a real asshole review of ALO's Time Expander album. It was something I'd forgotten about until recently. If the guys are even aware that small, petty press came from me they've never mentioned it. But, I wanted to note it because after this NYE show I'm officially an ALO fan, and they earned that position – not an easy one to obtain I tell you – through the merits of their music. They also happen to be real sweethearts and honest freaks, which is some pretty nice icing on the cake. The sound they make was a happiness harbinger on an evening when one needs it most. I may not know all the titles but give me a little time and I'll put them to memory. And I was more than happy to eat the words my younger self coughed up as my older self welcomed in 2009. The taste was nicer than I'd imagined it would be.

ALO :: 12.31.08 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Set I: Shapeshifter, Stuff, Waiting for Jaden (w/ Bo Carper acoustic guitar, Lebo pedal steel), Wasting Time (Isla Vista Song), Gardener (Trevor Garrod on keys, Zach on uke), Spectrum, Walls of Jericho
Set II: Feel It (Lebo vocal), Family, Past (Brogan vocal), All Alone, Country Camper (w/ Sean Leahy), Kolomana
Set III: Auld Lang Syne, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, Baby Baby (Rashida vocal), Midnight Hour, BBQ, Valentines Day, Faded (new Lebo tune), Oh, What a Night > Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down, Lady Loop
Encore: Water Song, Try (with a vocal song by Lebo in the jam, possibly Death Cab's "I Will Follow"), Animal Lib

Continue reading for pics of ALO and Big Light on 12/30...

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