ALO is a campfire band with a big rock ‘n’ roll sound. Their songs are indelible to their growing and devoted fan base, and their approach to performance seems rooted always in the present — like gathering with old friends around a crackling flame for another go ‘round.
The festival features a nice blend of bands that are well known around Ohio and others that don’t make it through the Buckeye State too often. ALO — Animal Liberation Orchestra, officially — falls distinctly among the latter. For those in Northeast Ohio and neighboring regions, the springtime spot is a rare gift.
Guitarist Dan Lebowitz spoke with Scene recently amid recording sessions. He had just gotten back from gigs with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and was eyeing a quick tour with his other band, Incidental Animals, which includes some fellow ALO members.
The band — pianist Zach Gill, bassist Steve Adams, drummer David Brogan and Lebo — will release a new album on Brushfire Records this fall, and Lebo says Ville attendees should tune in for a few of the new songs this weekend. They tossed several new ones onto setlists during their late winter tour.
“It’s important for a band like us, because how we play together is a big part of what the band is all about,” Lebo says. “We’ve got these songs, and the way we interpret them is important. It’s important to test them out before we commit them to the record.” By the time the band got around to the studio this spring, they had a full cache of songs all ready to be “ALO-ified.”
That’s how they approached 2012’s Sounds Like This. The band went into the studio and just threw down the songs — preferring the in-the-moment sound over the typical overdub process. The album opener, “Dead Still Dance,” sends the listener immediately into a wide-open plain awash in funky bass and raindrop guitar lines. It’s the sort of all-in sound that the band flips onstage with dextrous aplomb night after night.
Hell, even Gill’s simple ukelele love song “Storms and Hurricanes” sounds like a basement jam session on the fly. Lebo accents trembling keys and spends his solo emoting Delta blues licks before building back into the tight-knit verse with the rest of the band.
“For me, I have a different perspective. I really enjoy the concept of a pallette, where I’ve got my guitar and a certain way of doing things where it’s not necessarily traditional guitar playing,” Lebo says. “As we record more of the band live in-studio, I feel like more of that can come across.”
And so the new album in the works now sounds like it will have that classic ALO live essence about it. More extensive tour dates are expected after the album, and Lebo says the band is right where they want to be right now.
From the get-go, Lebowitz, Adams and Gill (aka LAG) started writing and performing in junior high school in 1989. They were all into music — Gill had a piano, Lebo had a guitar, their original drummer had a set at his house. When it became apparent that they’d need one of those four-string guitar things, Adams picked up a bass. It made sense. They formed a band called Django for a time before lineup changes and moves around California took hold.
During their college years in Santa Barbara, they began working with music mentor and drummer Dave Brogan, who would eventually lock in as a full-time member of the band in 2002. What transpired through the 1990s was strikingly similar to what the musicians are up to today: Expanding their individual horizons and having a hell of a good time playing music together.
Lebo says his parents always told him to focus on what he loved, because otherwise he’d be stuck “working” all of his life. The advice stuck, and he knew from an early age that he loved music. The dream has carried the band ever since.
Lumped in with the jam band community often enough, ALO has certainly created a presence angled around live, organic improvisation and musical surprises.
“Talking about something is really good, especially if there’s a specific concept you want to get across,” Lebo says. “But sometimes talking can actually get in the way. Words are words; words aren’t music. Sometimes it’s easier to speak musically, rather than with words.
“The thing for us is we have all these things we’ve learned over the years — or even just things in common,” he continues. “Sometimes at a show we’re really open to stuff like that, songs emerging out of other songs. We’ve learned all these songs, so the changes are in the back of our mind. Someone can start playing something, and then suddenly we’re at a fork in the road, you know? And it’s like, well, let’s go right instead of left, and suddenly we’re there. That’s something we like to play with a lot.”
And that’s one main reason why the band is en route to Northeast Ohio for The Ville.
“I insisted on them as part of the lineup,” festival investor Jason Morris says. “I mean, they never play. I’m super excited about it.”
The rest of the lineup features a diverse cast of bands from around the jam scene: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Papadosio, Lettuce, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, EOTO, Trigger Hippy, ekoostik hookah, and more. For a biennial music festival nestled into off-the-radar North Lawrence, it’s a real heavyweight.
The Ville, a biennial Ohio festival, began as Hookahville in 1994 with ekoostik hookah, Ed McGee, Bill Creedon performing shows in rural Fredericktown.
“It was such a revolutionary thing when they started doing it. Music festivals didn’t really exist back then,” Morris says. “A lot of the people who help start that first festival moved on to help create others around the country. The history is pretty vast.”
With such a rich musical community that’s sprung up in the last 20 years — partly, tangentially due to the roots ekoostik hookah were laying down with the spirit of Hookahville — it’s no wonder that the organizers have been able to pull in enticing and varied bands to hold down the stage for two weekends each year.
The last time ALO were in town, they played a tour-opening set at Beachland Ballroom and dropped a massive version of “Barbecue” that segued smoothly into Prince’s “1999” and back into “Barbecue.” It was extraordinary. As he dipped back into the refrain in “Barbecue,” Gill spoke directly to the crowd: “I’ve got a good feeling about Cleveland and Ohio. I’m feeling it. I’m feeling the Midwest. We started our tour in the Midwest and it feels right to me. ‘The road is long and winding, full of twists and turns…’”