It’s a Saturday night in the Gaslamp District, which has more bars than one neighborhood would seem to be able to support. Yet business seems to be booming, maybe because there’s a constant influx of tourists with cash to burn. But if it’s live music you seek, then the House of Blues is the primary hotspot in the Gaslamp.
The venue doesn’t have the best local reputation though, for a variety of reasons. The setup of the main room leaves areas under low ceilings that don’t have great sound. The beer selection is slim, especially in comparison with the boom of craft beer bars in the region. Security is known to be overly hawkish and the venue has no smoking section either. It’s just not a place that is considered user friendly. But Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO) is in town, so the serious rock ‘n’ roll fans will make the trip downtown anyway.
The perception of the venue not being user friendly is only magnified tonight when the HOB’s Facebook page lists the wrong start time for the opening band, causing a number of patrons to wind up missing the first set from the headliners. Complaints are lodged, with an apparently uncaring management merely suggesting that start times are always subject to change. It’s another strike against the San Diego House of Blues, which just doesn’t seem to respect its customers like a proper music venue should.
The men of ALO are ready to save the evening though, thanks to their jam rock sensibilities, which means that a big second set is generally going to be in store. Their sound blends a classic rock foundation with modern funk and jazz influenced vibes, and a sense of melodic flair with the musicianship to push the envelope. The jammy quartet aren’t noodlers though, but rather troubadours in service to the song and the moments within the songs that are ripe for exploration. They also have a deep songbook that enables them to pull magic moments out of a hat when the muse moves them. Last summer’s late night performance at the High Sierra Music Festival, for example, saw ALO drop the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle album in its entirety.
Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz’s slide guitar is out front and center on “Wasted Time”, which starts off slow and easy before building into a big groove that gets the set going. Keybordist Zach Gill, bassist Steve Adams, and drummer Dave Brogan all harmonize on the easy going vocals, but it’s the melty slide guitar licks that really power the tune. The jam recalls the Allman Brothers Band and the String Cheese Incident to some degree, but a sweet curveball arrives in the form of a teaser verse of the Beatle’s “Blackbird”. This then dissolves back into a psychedelic bluesy jam that elevates the House of Blues from mere nightclub into a rock temple for the moment. This once again emphasizes how you can never be quite sure what kind of treats you’ll get with ALO.
“Shapeshifter” is met with immediate enthusiasm by longtime fans in the audience, and it’s an epic type of tune that takes listeners on a ride you just can’t get in a three-minute pop song. It’s got a bluesy groove that takes off into some uplifting psychedelic territory before another curveball, when Gill teases a verse of Timbuk3’s MTV classic “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”. This ‘80s hit has a nice feel here in 2013, with the long-sought paradigm shift of 2012 missing in action, yet feeling like it could still somehow be in play moving forward. If music is to help usher in a new golden age (and how could it be a golden age without a plethora of live music), then ALO are certainly doing their part to help let the good times roll.
The surprises keep coming when the band is joined by a member of opening group the California Honeydrops for a fine rendition of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. It’s a nice gesture from the headliners to give the opening act some extra exposure. It also demonstrates how ALO have always been a band looking to interact with their peers, whether it’s at the San Francisco Jazz Fest or just Lebo sitting in with Tea Leaf Green as he did in San Francisco last fall. Some music fans see their favorite bands as competing against each other, but ALO knows that when you have shared influences, everyone is on the same team.
The 1971 classic shows ALO jumping all over the space time continuum from the late ‘60s to the mid ‘80s and then back to the early ‘70s, before launching themselves right back into the future with their ultra funky jam vehicle “Hot Tub”. It’s been one of the band’s staple tunes for years, but it’s one of those songs that’s always pushing forward. Gill’s electric piano and synth work recalls vintage Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters, while the rhythm section is locked into a super tight groove. Lebo’s extra funky riffage pushes the quartet into a higher plane with a collective groove that has everyone getting down on the good foot. Music fans looking for the authentic laid back, groovy vibe of California will be sure to find it at an ALO show.
The good times continue to roll after the show when the California Honeydrops set up on the sidewalk outside the venue and jam out acoustic style for anyone who wants to stick around. The band may be from California, but this is a New Orleans-style second line kind of street corner party that proves quite popular indeed. The band is still jamming out well after the official show has ended, literally taking it to the streets.
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