What really sets apart a band is when its collective energy equals more than the sum of its parts. Think of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Phish. Although every members of these revered rock acts have put out solo material, it will never touch the magic of the band itself.
Aug. 31 | 4 p.m.
Village at Squaw | Olympic Valley
Sep. 1 | 4 p.m.
Commons Beach | Tahoe City
While the four guys in ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) may end up better known for the side projects they’ve joined, what resonates most deeply will always be what they’ve accomplished together.
Bassist Steve Adams first met keyboardist Zach Gill in second grade at Argonaut Elementary School in the South Bay hamlet of Saratoga.
“I knew him as the funny class clown who’d make everybody laugh,” says Adams. “We played sports together, but his real talent was in theater and performing.”
Without telling a soul, Gill busted out with a band of his own at a seventh grade talent show. Blown away by his friend’s secret skills, Adams noticed the group was lacking one important element: the bass.
“I’d been watching MTV music videos to see what bands looked like and went out, got a bass, knocked on his door and said, ‘Hey man, I want to join your band,’” says Adams.
Rumor had it that Dan Lebowitz had been a great guitar player in fifth grade, but put his ax in the closet. The boys asked him to join as the rhythm guitarist. With Matt West on drums, this group morphed into a high-school quintet called Django.
Sensing momentum, the group migrated to Santa Barbara for college. During senior year, Lebowitz, Adams and Gill (known collectively as LAG) and University of California, Santa Barbara jazz director John Nathan, formed an ensemble called Animal Liberation Orchestra and the Free Range Horns.
“The inspiration was for a fun party band that included anybody,” says Adams. “Liberate your inner animal, we used to say.”
During raucous sets at Giovanni’s Pizza, they’d shackle the horn players to the stage and free them while wailing out improvised funk jams into the beachy night.
Cultivating Musical Empathy
A turning point for the group came that winter of 2002. While returning from a successful run of shows in Colorado, the van hit black ice on a high-country pass on I-80 just west of Lyman, Wyo. With Adams at the wheel, the band and their manager, Jenna Lebowitz, managed to survive two and a half rolls off an embankment with little more a scratch.
“ALO flyers were flapping in the wind,” recalls Adams. “It was super surreal. That could’ve gone a number a ways. Somebody could’ve died. But everybody was okay. Nobody was mad at me. I felt bad, but they took the pressure off.”
The group returned to San Francisco shaken up but soldiering on. With a gig lined up at The Independent, they posted about the accident and missing the show in Utah. Two weeks later, there was a line down the street for a completely sold-out concert. That night a booking agent who’d worked with their college buddy Jack Johnson was at the show. They were signed to Brushfire Records that same year.
In 2005, Gill was asked to be the full-time keyboardist for Johnson and the band went on hiatus. Lebo jammed with Brokedown in Bakersfield, Brett Dennen and Phil Lesh. Adams toured with Sara Bareilles, Big Light, Tea Leaf Green and Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, before starting his own group Magic In The Other with drummer Ezra Lipp.
“At that point, I feel like the band loosened its expectation on what it could be,” says Adams. “That was a good move for us.”
Since drummer Dave Brogan is now on hiatus spending time with his family, Lipp joined the band officially last year. With the new quartet, ALO released their first recording called “Creatures Vol. 1: Spark.” It’s an exploratory four-song EP that gets back to the band’s jam roots while meshing their various influences from life on the road.
“We still have this band that can come back together and have it be something special,” says Adams. “I think we’ve somehow been able to keep it evolving. We’re constantly having to look at ourselves and see who we are now. The evolution keeps it fresh and inspires the fans who know the band. There has to be a lot of empathy for each other and understanding and openness. We are supporting everyone’s crazy vision and being a ‘yes’ band, keeping fun at the forefront — and when the audience is having fun I think we are having more fun, too.”
ALO will be performing at Foam Fest on Aug. 31 at the Village at Squaw. On Sept. 1, Lebo & Friends will headline Concerts at Commons Beach in Tahoe City, sponsored by Tahoe Weekly. | squawalpine.com, concertsatcommonsbeach.com