I wasn’t able to initially reach ALO guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz on his phone — the call it went to voicemail. On it, he implores his missed connections to leave a message then signs off with a bright strum of his guitar. That felt right. I didn’t know where Lebo was, but wherever he was, his guitar was probably right there with him.
Where Lebo and his guitar are at any one time can be hard to pin down. As he eventually revealed to me over the phone, he finished off 2019 with an East Coast tour, time in the studio with ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) and “sneaking in a quick trip to Jamaica,” all while welcoming the New Year on Jan. 1 with Phil Lesh at Terrapin Crossroads.
That type of travel can certainly take a toll on musicians — both physically and mentally — and the myriad ways to combat that type of stress and fatigue is as varied as the musicians in those circumstances. For Lebo, it seems his happy place is the whole reason he’s out there in the first place: playing music with his guitar.
“The gear goes off in the gear truck but every day I take my guitar with me. I’ll sit in the hotel after the gig with my guitar, or if we don’t have to rush out in the morning, sitting there playing. You are putting stuff into your head all the time when you are around all this music, so it is fun to go deeper with it and also to let it out,” he said.
Experiencing his incessant joy and commitment to the Muse, it is easy to understand why Lebo is one of the most beloved collaborators and sit-in extraordinaires of the jam world. ALO’s laid-back, goofy, Californi-cana has been the guitarist’s main musical vehicle since 1989, when he first started playing with friends Zach Gill (keys/vocals) and Steve Adams (bass/vocals) at the prodigious age of 12. His curious mind is always open to sonic opportunities and he’s shared the stage with everyone from underground luminaries Roosevelt Collier and Reed Mathis to stadium-filling stars such as Jack Johnson and Phil Lesh.
“I’m an in-the-moment-type person with that one, I hear something and just move towards it. I feel fortunate that I get to play with a lot of musicians that do that for me. I get to play with so many awesome, inspiring musicians where it just happens onstage or in rehearsal and it can send me off,” Lebowitz said.
Lebo’s ability to listen, improvise and serve in the moment is possibly his greatest musical asset. By not phoning it in or coming with preconceived notions of what the music should be, he opens up the infinite potential of the music for both himself and the people he is playing with. It is an ethos alive and well in ALO and is something that is reinforced every time Lebo crosses paths with one of the ultimate impresarios of improv, Phil Lesh.
“Music is so ripe for interpretation and I think Phil really appreciates that aspect of it, too. The rule is listen before you play. Don’t play anything unless you hear it in your head. I love that side of music — that’s a side of music I respond to, even in ALO where I know those songs so intimately. But I like that aspect of playing what you hear, not just play what you know. It’s a big distinction,” Lebo said.
Complacency is a creative ball and chain that will weigh down any musician. Luckily, it seems Lebo and the rest of ALO are as invigorated and weightless as ever with the release of two recent EPs, “Creatures, Vol 1: Spark” and “Creatures, Vol 2: Weave.” The band went into the project with the intent of creating smaller musical portions, not needing the pressure of cobbling together an album from multiple recording sessions stretching out over multiple weeks.
Each EP was written and recorded in the manner of days and the result is a collection of music that feels immediate and unfussed, exuding the cozy intimacy of a tiny beach bunaglow nestled in the gray, wintery mists of Stinson Beach. You can really lean into the rainy day ruminations (“Heroes”), lava-lamp grooves (“Baby Blind Spot”), exuberant revelations (“Get to Do It Again”), and feel the shag carpet curling between your toes as you boogie barefoot across the room. It’s a beautifully unpretentious respite from an overwhelming world high off its hubris.
The same can be said of ALO as a whole as well, one of California’s most cherished home-state heroes in the jam world. For over two decades the band has amassed a dedicated following of fans and a familial circle of musical collaborators and compadres willing to smile the night away in an outpouring of song and dance.
The band’s run to Crystal Bay Casino, which will include new permanent drummer and old friend Ezra Lipp on drums, is part of the group’s 14th Tour D’Amour,” a homecoming tour of sorts to celebrate all the musical animals on ALO’s arc. This run will feature two shows with The Motet, as well as Red Room performances by off-shoot Magic Gravy, a power-trio consisting of Lebo and The Motet’s Garrett Sayers (bass) and Dave Watts (drums). The run also gives Lebo, Gill and Adams the opportunity to revisit, rekindle and nurture the musical relationships they’ve shared together since middle school.
“That’s actually one of the things I like about this time of year with Tour D’Amour is that we get to spend some time in that space. During the summer it tends to be more festivals where you are popping in for a show or a couple shows. But this season tends to be where we go really heavy and play a lot together over the course of a couple months. There’s something nice about playing night after night and going deep on stuff. It’s so nice at Crystal Bay, we love playing there, we’re glad we’ll get some hang time in,” Lebo said.
As they continue down the road of 2020, the members of ALO will find themselves playing for people all over the states, on stages big and small, with longtime friends and new-found pals. No matter where they are physically, ALO has shown they’ll always be in a happy place when they are together onstage, plugging in their instruments and listening to each other play. For Lebo and his guitar, there’s no better place to be.
“I try to focus on state of mind. To me that’s what it is all about. If I can get to a good state of mind, I’ll be OK. Fortunately and thankfully, I think I can get there pretty easy. Being in a good state of mind goes hand-in-hand with inspiration and being in an inspired state of mind. I’m still a huge music fan and love hearing good music and it’s important to be in that type of mind when I go play shows. It’s not too hard — just get a guitar in your hand.”
— Garrett Bethmann
ALO and The Motet
When: 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7-8
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Tickets: $32 in advance or $35 on the day of the show
Red Room after-party: Magic Gravy