Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
ALO/Poor Man's Whiskey :: 02.20.10 :: The Fillmore :: San Francisco, CA
To say the future feels precarious in 2010 seems a gross understatement. Even the days immediately in front of us seem shaky and unpredictable, and even if our own lives have some stability one need only switch on the news to see it's not a shared state by much of the planet. Amidst such turbulence, a night of joyfully delivered, passionately built, high quality music is an oasis – an extra serving of solace for our dinged up souls and a respite from the quaking earth and falling bottom lines outside the theater walls. ALO and sympathetic opener Poor Man's Whiskey created just this sort of environment, conjuring music that bypassed our cares as it dove straight for our collective pleasure center.
What made this pairing – further enlivened by tasty pre-show and 'tweener sets in the upstairs Poster Room from gifted pop craftsman Chris Velan - so satisfying was not just their significant good time quotient but their ability to weave that vibe with subtle substance. The toss 'n' turn of the world isn't absent in their compositions but neither is it as bloodied and bloodying as the news, politicians and Wall Street can make things. Within both ALO and PMW there lies a core desire to entertain – a yen to tap the lover or child within their listeners – that's evolved over time to encompass the harder edges of adult reality. So, while many focus on the effervescent qualities of both groups, there's been something deeper and ultimately more enduring creeping up in their songs for some time now. This marriage of the jubilant and the weighty - splashed by humor, effective showmanship and crowd pleasing covers - proved a very effective recipe at The Fillmore.
Poor Man's kicked it off with significant twang that bloomed into a succulent psych groove. One finds the incongruous makes sense in PMW's sphere, where strangely seamless transitions and a wide musical vocabulary lurk within their surface vaudevillian nature. While they convincingly invited us to "ball that jack," they were also just as persuasive and emotionally on-point singing about coming home after a long time away. Those less familiar with PMW see them as a fiery, fun string band but increasingly they're plugged in and anxious to carve out a dynamic sound much closer in spirit to S.F.'s pioneering '60s rockers. 'String bands' don't bust out extended, vaguely possessed Theremin solos or neatly sculpted space rock trips, and Poor Man's did both in their rollicking 45-minute set, which also included a visit from all of ALO on an obvious but enjoyable cover of Men At Work's "Land Down Under" performed because both bands are scheduled to play the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia this April. While PMW can come off a touch cartoony at times, yelping about spilling whiskey on the dance floor while winking at the clogging hippies stage front, there's more to them than their rep sometimes accounts for. So, if you haven't checked them out in a spell this is a good time to catch up.
|PMW with Gill :: 02.20 :: San Francisco|
A few songs into ALO's first set - watching the smiling, giddily undulating crowd from the balcony – it occurred to me how easily this could be someone's favorite band. Every tune, regardless of era or which guy brought it to the table, is so ridiculously well built and insidiously melodic. This music gets stuck in your head and you have no desire whatsoever to banish it. Without sounding precisely like any ancestor in particular – though there's a pinch of almost every notable pop-rock heavyweight from the past 50 years floating around in their DNA – ALO delivers music with fundamental charm, killer construction and boffo vocals (keyboardist-lead singer Zach Gill, in particular, has one of those endlessly malleable, perfect pop voices on par with past standouts like Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook, Todd Rundgren and Paul Carrack). And The Fillmore performance simply accentuated every single positive in their makeup.
While the setlist steered away from some of the darker currents on their newest and best-yet album, Man of the World (released February 9 and available for stream on JamBase), there were touches of the group's advancing maturity sprinkled amongst diehard faves like opener "Hot Tub" and a sly, jazzy "Plastic Bubble," the latter featuring a cool sit-in from guitarist Mark Karan (RatDog). For instance, the new record's title cut seemed all sweetness and light if you just bopped to it, but parse the lyrics and you're in the shit, brushing elbows with a man of war who don't know why he's waging it and can never quite seem to get enough. The ability to merge heft with lilt is rare and one of several elements in today's ALO that remind me very acutely of late period Beatles, with the added bonus of rarely aping Lennon and McCartney's moves.
|Zach Gill - ALO :: 02.20 :: San Francisco|
While a majority of the audience seemed most tickled by established, older material, it was the new songs – every last one of them – that laid me flat. The first set ending one-two punch of "I Love Music" crashing into a ballsy, delightfully calamitous version of "The Champ" proved a fantastic juxtaposition that first crept up one's thigh with a grin only to eventually knock one for a loop with drummer-vocalist Dave Brogan's modern zeitgeist capturing lyrics:
Every morning when he wakes up
He looks out his window and wonders about leaving
He's dialing in distant DJs
And thinking about feeling
And he starts thinking about all the signals he's receivin'
And whether they're worth believin'
It's a safe bet that ALO will always throw a damn fine shindig live, but my gut says it's their growing depth and sophistication as players and composers that will put them in the rock history books. Two of the key themes ALO is exploring these days are the constant influx of input we all receive and the insidious notion that there's never enough to satisfy the ache inside us. In exposing these ideas to sunlight, debunking them and offering a restorative respite to all the hustle 'n' bustle – as they did at The Fillmore – ALO is forging music that makes folks happy and maybe does them some greater good, too.
Continue reading for a review of ALO in Los Angeles earlier in the week...