Jack Johnson, ALO, Matt Costa :: 8.19.05 :: Greek Theatre :: Berkeley, CA

Words by Matt Layton :: Images by Josh Miller

Jack Johnson :: In Between Dreams Tour
Jack Johnson has come a long way over the past few years. With three albums under his belt, he has leapt from opening for the likes of Ben Harper to starting his own record label (Brushfire Records), hosted the Kokua festival in his native Hawaii, played at each Bonnaroo, has sold out stadiums from coast to coast, sold tons of albums, has found airplay on major outlets - and that is just the music. In addition to all this, he still continues to direct surf films and ride waves while leading a somewhat private and fruitful life outside the lens of America's prying eye. The most endearing quality that we as the public find attractive in Jack is quite possibly his disregard for the spotlight. He comes across as a laid-back guy whose simplicity resonates in just about everything that he does. His music is somewhat melodic and repetitive, yet at the same time, his lyrics are mysteriously soul-soothing and dead-on in regards to what the everyman goes through. Jack Johnson, much like Dave Matthews, is a poet in this regard. And judging by the turnout thus far on his "In Between Dreams" tour, it seems as though the sky is the limit for this ever-growing surfer turned musician. Jack's good taste was only further highlighted when he brought along two extremely talented young bands to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. Along for the ride were long-time friends and Santa Barbara alumni ALO as well as the up-and-coming Matt Costa.

Pulling into the Greek Friday night, my concerns regarding the type of crowd I was about to encounter hit me like a brick to the gut. It seemed as though the event was sponsored by Abercrombie and Coors Light. I found myself being taken back to my early teen days where each summer just about the whole town went to Irvine Meadows to see Jimmy Buffett or Steve Miller Band. Regardless of the banter going on in the crowd or the difference in vibe compared to what I am used to, nothing could keep my eye off the prize, and that was of course the giant banner that stretched across the back of the stage with a gigantic bee that I know far too well and the three words that made me feel like the proudest parent on earth: Animal Liberation Orchestra.

ALO :: In Between Dreams Tour - 2005
2005, more so than any year prior, has been the year of the Liberated Animal. Kicking it off with a still buzzing New Year's Eve co-bill with Tea Leaf Green at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, ALO have turned heads at Jazz Fest, Wakarusa, 10,000 Lakes, and a blistering late night set at High Sierra - all while still holding a special place for the fans that have been there for the long haul. It was also in 2005 that they planted the seeds for what may end up being a yearly excursion titled "mAfLOwers," which took the band's relation with ambience, flair, and audience participation to a whole new level. Top that with an opening slot for Jack Johnson that will have taken them to The Gorge, The Greek, Red Rocks, Deer Creek, and Central Park, and all of sudden we realize that ALO is quickly rising to the top of the Jam Scene. It was clear the second they walked onto the stage the first night at the Greek that the secret is out, as screaming girls rushed the stage to get a first-hand look at what all the clamor has been about.

Dan Lebowitz - ALO :: In Between Dreams Tour - 2005
Wasting no time at all, ALO launched into the happy-go-lucky "Plastic Bubble," and the whole place went nuts. Even from the stage you could see Smootie (bassist Steve Adams) making eye contact with friends and family who have been along on this ride - a ride sixteen years in the making. Just imagine growing up in the suburbs outside South Bay and picking up an instrument with your closest friends, dreaming about one day playing to sold-out theatres across the country, or even just the chance to play the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The expression that stretched across each of the four faces beamed with utter pride and total appreciation. In the crowd it was much the same, I saw tears fall down cheeks from those who have been there since the college days, and I saw that ever-growing familiar blinking that happens when life-long fans are instantaneously made. Through the forty-minute set, ALO turned out the goods with sparkling versions of "Barbeque," "Shapeshifter," "Possibly Drown," and a "Girl, I wanna lay you down" featuring Jack Johnson that I thought was going to make certain Jack fans explode. At one point, when Jack walked onstage with ALO, a fifteen year-old girl busted into a screaming fit with tears pouring down her face. It reminded me of those ridiculous black and white shots you see in old Beatles movies. They closed out the far-too-short set with the now anthem-esque "Walls Of Jericho" before turning things over to Matt Costa for the better time slot. As I made my way out of the screaming pit, I smiled at the notion of rotating times between ALO and Costa (as the two traded time slots each night) with the last bit of "Walls" still echoing in my head... "My time's coming, but it's not tonight."

Matt Costa :: In Between Dreams Tour
Matt Costa took to the stage rather quickly after ALO had left, and while I had never heard any of his music, I saw instantly why he fit well into the Jack scene. I say "Jack scene" because I see such similarities between Jack and Donavon Frankenreiter and now Matt Costa. It's that very simplistic soft beach music that works well because you don't have to think about it too much. There is no fat to cut away and certainly no beef to the music itself, but that is not to say it is bad. It just is what it is. I was sitting up at the far back of the lawn for Costa's set and actually found several moments where I was entranced by the eye-candy that accompanied the delicate music: a stunning sunset with purple swirls blanketing the theatre, similar to the images I've seen over and over from the mythic Grateful Dead shows at the famous theatre. Costa reminded the ears of a mixture between Mason Jennings and possibly a hint of folky Ben Folds - if that is even possible. While I found elements of his songs catchy and managed to do the swaying body groove thang, I was not sold and skipped his set the following day.

Jack Johnson with ALO :: In Between Dreams Tour - 2005
Having seen Jack Johnson many times over the past five years, I was expecting the same songs and the same old basic stripped-down sound coming from basic riffs, simple bass, and filler drums. However, what I found within the opening notes of "Taylor" washed away any of those thoughts I had for one reason and one reason only. Jack has added a much-needed element to the table - the piano stylings of Zach Gill. Sound familiar? Zach is also in ALO. So there they are, Jack and Zach - longtime college friends and now bandmates who together have successfully made about 8,000 teenage girls freak-out on a nightly basis for the better part of the summer. Gill not only brings a new layer and texture to Jack's beautifully crafted songs, but he also brings the stage presence to life. Jack stands and sways a bit with his guitar like a palm tree in the wind while Merlo, his bassist, bobs up and down and even occasionally sits. All the while Adam Topol holds it down on the kit, but Zach Gill pumps life into everything he touches. Hell, even when he wasn't playing, he would stand up and start dancing along and clapping. The image that paints the closest picture is a cross between a Fraggle rocking out and a Muppet marionette doll lunging in true fashion. Signs popped up throughout the crowd with slogans that read "the Jack and Zach attack," and the place erupted whenever Zach took the stage front and center next to Jack to give the music just the right amount of accordion that it had been missing. I still say to this day, there is something to be said about music that rages the accordion. There is no doubt in my mind that Jack Johnson's place in today's top-touring circuit is cemented by the addition. With Gill on keys and accordion, the music has no void or gaps now. It flows with more color and has elements of saloon-style piano that flirts with the beach party in all the right ways. Other highlights came that night with special guests Dan Lebowitz on lap steel for one song and lead on another. G. Love came and dished out the goods, and Matt Costa even squeaked out for a tune. Throughout the night we saw cameras pulled through the shadows for an eventual DVD, and a phenomenal light show drenched the stage with images of rain falling and waves crashing.

As is the case with more than a few "popular" bands there will be aspects of the show that may not appeal to fans who enjoy more intimate, less radio-friendly music. On this evening in Berkeley it was an easy sell and the music clearly won. Minus the over-priced beer, screaming fifteen year-olds and over-inebriated frat boys, I thoroughly enjoyed the soulful music at the Greek, and judging by my scream-stained, ringing ears, I'm quite sure that I was not alone.

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[Published on: 9/6/05]

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