All photos: Joshua Feldman — All words: Kerri Pinchuk
“Something about this groove makes me feel like Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’,” announced ALO keyboardist and singer Zach Gill in the middle of one particularly soulful jam. “I feel like Janet Jackson and I’m not afraid to say it.” A pink disco ball spun above the audience, gathered underground at U Street Music Hall for the Friday evening show.
You know that moment of enlightenment when you experience a band for the first time and wonder where they’ve been your entire life? You’ve heart that one song somewhere, and then suddenly it all makes sense. I’ve now witnessed that revelation in three of three friends who I’ve dragged to ALO shows. The California “funkateers” brought their pop-jazz-funk fusion back to D.C. Friday, delighting a diverse crowd of loyal fans (some new) with favorites spanning the band’s full and inclusive repertoire.
Having spent a fair share of late nights with dubby DJs at U Hall, it’s always cool/weird/refreshing to literally turn around and see an internationally-known band play on the back stage. The relatively small space and the band’s perennially friendly and playful interactions made the show seem intimate yet incredibly casual. Like a house party with the cool and talented friends you always wish you had.
For those who have yet to be enlightened: Animal Liberation Orchestra are known for their genre-blurring style often likened to bands like Dave Matthews Band, Ben Harper, Ben Kweller and Jack Johnson (the quartet has a longtime friendship with Johnson—since their college days). They’re also one of those difficult-to-categorize groups who have great albums, but completely take it to another level live. They have the ability to turn a pop song into an intricate—and danceable—12-minute jam with intense guitar solos, and still then turn on the reggae. Major festival darlings, they just wrapped a summer tour that included Wakarusa, Bonnaroo, All Good, Gathering of the Vibes and Floyd Fest, and the night after their U Hall slot, they shared the stage with John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Willie Nelson at Farm Aid.
Friday’s early show opened with “Blew Out the Walls,” a spacey track off their current album Sounds Like This. They then moved into a soulful “Roses and Clover,” the smooth title track off their ultra successful 2007 album, and at the descent of the keys-heavy jam, Gill eased into a soft verse of The Beatles’s “Blackbird.” They rounded out a slew of very mellow songs with “Speed of Dreams” and feel-good reggae track “Try,” closing with “I Love Music,” a song with impressive acoustic guitar solos that got everyone dancing.
They returned with “Barbecue,” one of those aforementioned catchy songs that you know you know but you don’t know how, followed by a funky “Falling Dominoes,” setting up a second set with back-to-back hits. They dug into the vault for “Wasting
Time,” a G. Love-esque ballad that had serious fans singing along. Gill pulled out the ukulele that melted a thousand hearts for the pretty love song “Storms and Hurricanes,” which teased a cover of George Michaels’s “Faith.” The audience went crazy for “Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down,” one of the band’s most famous songs (also featuring Jack Johnson) and then the extended Rhythm Nation-reminiscent “Plastic Bubble.” They wrapped with a long jam in “Time is of the Essence” and an encore of crowd-pleaser “Lady Loop.”
In their typical down-to-Earth style, the band ended the show with an invitation to the appreciative crowd to stick around and hang out at the club. There was to be a dance party later that night. “I hear there’s a DJ,” Gill said. “That’s great. Let’s all dance together.”