Animal Liberation Orchestra + Twiddle
25 Feb 2017: The Fillmore San Francisco
It’s a winter Saturday at the Fillmore and there’s a sense of tradition at the famous corner of Fillmore and Geary with regional favorites Animal Liberation Orchestra set to cap off their annual Tour d’Amore appearance at the classic venue. But there’s also a sense of anticipation for something new in the air as rising Northeastern buzz band Twiddle is set to make their Fillmore debut in the opening slot. Getting the chance to see a hot newer act as an opener is a longtime part of Fillmore tradition, with original proprietor Bill Graham endeavoring to give patrons full value back in the ‘60s by fielding talented opening acts to create strong bills (and to try to fill the room early to sell more drinks.)
The Vermont-based quartet fills the bill here, hitting the stage promptly at 8 pm with a good sized crowd on hand to see what the buzz is about. Twiddle wastes no time getting down to business, throwing down a set of jam-centric tunes as if they were headlining. The band’s “HiDef Shred Face Melting Barnyard Stomp Rock N Roll” sound is no hyperbole as it turns out, but rather an apt description. Guitarist/vocalist Mihali Savoulidis has clearly got chops to burn but is also skilled at employing them in the context of groovy jams that have the audience getting down in a way that opening bands rarely do. Keyboardist Ryan Dempsey wields a wider sonic palette than many of his peers, helping catalyze the jams while drummer Brook Jordan and bassist Zdenek Gubb form a tight rhythm section that can swing or attack the beat. Twiddle employs some deeper lyrics than some of their jamrock brethren too, such as on the bluesy ska rock of “Lost in the Cold” when Savoulidis sings, “It’s hard to see the future when the present doesn’t suit ya…” When the band’s short but sweet set ends, there’s a sense of the crowd wanting more. Twiddle delivers when Savoulidis announces the band will play the following night at Terrapin Crossroads in nearby San Rafael (more on that at the end of the story.)
The Fillmore is almost completely full by the end of the set, showing that Animal Liberation Orchestra fans are plenty interested in checking out Twiddle. But there’s no doubt that ALO is the main event, with many heeding the call to dress in some kind of sparkle garb to get the Saturday night dance party in gear. Originally based out of Santa Barbara, the California rockers have come to be more synonymous with San Francisco for many, lending this show a hometown feel. And while all four members currently star in different side projects, there’s a still a sense of tradition when the quartet comes together. An early highlight occurs when Jen Hartswick makes a surprise guest appearance to rock the lead vocal on a rousing rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” that lights up the night with classic rock love.
Most of the first set leans toward a straightforward mid-tempo rock sound that while generally pleasing, fails to employ the full dynamics the band is capable of (an absence which stands out after Twiddle’s set). But the funky set closer “Hot Tub” signals that ALO is ready to crank it up a notch. The fan favorite gets the whole room moving as keyboardist Zach Gill spins the humorous tale of hot tub hedonism. His cosmic synth starts to gel with the warm groove laid down by bassist Steve Adams and the tight pocket beat from drummer Dave Brogan, while guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz turns on his octave pedal for a hot solo that finds the quartet’s chemistry coalescing in classic fashion.
The second set is at a higher level. “The Ticket” from 2015’s Tangle in Time album finds the band re-engaging the cosmic funk sound, with Gill singing “We came from the future by way of the past…” The song’s trippy animated video suggests ALO could star as time-traveling superheroes in their own cartoon show, and that vibe begins to permeate the Fillmore. “Falling Dominoes” keeps the crowd grooving with pure feel good rock ‘n’ roll and a catchy syncopation that just won’t quit. The band shifts gears with the Dylan-esque gem “I Wanna Feel It”, with Lebo starring on heartfelt vocals as the band reflects some more of their classic rock influence. Some of the changes might be lifted straight out of “Visions of Johanna”, but they sure sound good here at the Fillmore as they spin off into a unique chorus about finding a way to fly. Lebo lets fly with a soaring guitar solo that goes even higher when he stands up on a stage riser to elevate himself above the crowd, with the shredding to match. “Shapeshifter” takes fans on a genuine sonic journey when the song moves into a spacey jam that maximizes the Fillmore’s timeless psychedelic vibes to conjure the glory days of the Grateful Dead and Santana as Lebo lets some more liquid lightning flow. The trip comes back to terra firma when the band launches into “I Love Music”, another fan favorite of spiritual liberation for Earth-bound monkeys who love to dance.
A genuine harmonic convergence occurs when ALO welcomes all four members of Twiddle to join the fun on “Barbeque”, a song it turns out that Twiddle has covered for years. Gill even speaks of wanting to reach a catharsis that “transcends time and space”, which is what’s been going down on the best nights at the Fillmore for 50 years. It’s always a treat when bands jam together on this stage, and the pairing leads to some great twin riffage from Lebo and Twiddle’s Savoulidis on an extended jam over the uplifting groove. The Fillmore soon finds itself partying like its “1999” as the ensemble segues into Prince’s classic party anthem. It’s a bit ragged but even more fun, before a segue back into “Barbeque” for a big finish. ALO has packed the Fillmore again, showing their musical locomotive shows is still steaming into the future, a boon for the west coast music scene.
* * *
Fast forward 24 hours and many of the same music fans have made the short journey over the Marin County hills and not so far away to Terrapin Crossroads, where Twiddle has now been billed to include a special guest appearance from proprietor Phil Lesh. The Grateful Dead bassist is forced to back out however when his flight back home from Hawaii gets canceled. But the show must go on, and it seems Twiddle will surely get a little help from their new friends to boost the vibe. Tickets are only $10, and many were eager to catch another set of Twiddle even before Lesh was added. The Terrapin Allstars featuring Grahame Lesh and none other than ALO’s Lebo throw down a vibrant opening set that gets the assembled ready to rock in the Grate Room. This assures that Twiddle will play one long set rather than their customary two-set show, but it soon becomes clear that the quartet will be treating this performance as the second set of what they started at the Fillmore.
The opening “Earth Mama” kicks things off with a fun, upbeat vibe and then the band goes for broke with “Syncopated Healing.” The song’s tight melodic groove seems somehow familiar even to those who are new to Twiddle, sending the room right into dance mode over the alluring lyrical invocation to “Let the music heal your life”. Maybe it’s because the song’s sharp syncopation recalls the Phil Lesh & Friends “Quintet” era from 2000 to 2003, where Lesh was pushing the envelope of Grateful Dead music in a dynamic up-tempo way with Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Molo and Rob Barraco. The healing power of the groove has long been a key element of popular improv-oriented music, from The Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way” to the Grateful Dead’s ever-lasting sonic elixir in songs like “Franklin’s Tower”. It quickly becomes apparent that Twiddle is tapping into this medicine as well. The band jumps into the deep end as keyboardist Ryan Dempsey leads a big jam on the piano that kicks the groove into overdrive, with the quartet’s obvious chemistry becoming clear. The jam then moves in a distinctly Phishy direction with a “Reba”-esque melodic sequence that catches fire as guitarist Mihali Souvelidis tears up the fretboard with melty hot shred on an ascendant jam that makes the Grate Room feel like it’s about to explode.
There’s a “wow” feeling in the room now as few expected to be blown away in such a manner. Twiddle makes another crowd-pleasing move by welcoming Lebo to the stage for “Dusk Til Dawn”, a low-key yet melodic number that benefits from his nimble guitar skills. Keyboardist Todd Stoops then joins the fun on “Every Soul”. Twiddle shows what a class act they are on the groovy jam by giving big solos to Lebo and Stoops that raise the vibe again before the song moves into a funky downtempo dub section. There’s more “HiDef shred” on “Latin Tang” with Souvelidis and Lebo going at it fiercely on a tune that shows off Twiddle’s Santana influence, capping off Lebo’s three-song guest appearance in sizzling fashion.
Twiddle keeps the infectious vibe going with 19 glorious minutes of “Doinkinbonk”, continuing to generate the rare invigorating feeling that comes over a room when fans find themselves discovering the existence of another major league jam band. Thirty-year-old Grahame Lesh, whose band Midnight North will soon be touring with Twiddle back east, is spotted sitting on a stool side stage clearly digging what he’s hearing. Lesh is then called up to jam on “Subconscious Prelude”, another dynamic rocker that serves as a prelude to the obligatory Grateful Dead song that Twiddle says was supposed to be with Phil but will instead be in his honor. It’s still a heartwarming sight to see Grahame Lesh rock out with Twiddle on an extended “Eyes of the World”, showing how much he’s grown as a musician over the past five years since the opening of Terrapin Crossroads. Souvelidis sings the first verse, Lesh sings the second verse, and then they trade licks on another soul lifting jam.
The elder Lesh shows little sign of slowing down as he nears his 77th birthday, having played eight shows in nine nights during a January “Dead of Winter” run in the Terrapin bar. But it’s great to know that younger bands like Animal Liberation Orchestra, Twiddle and Midnight North (and so many others in this golden age of sound) are ready to carry the torch when the time comes.