To know Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz is to love him. He really is one of the nicest guys in the world. But you don’t have to know him. Just hearing him is enough to earn most people’s adoration. The sound that emanates from his guitar and vocal chords elevates one’s spirit; just like his relentlessly positive persona. Fortunately for music fans, especially those in Northern California, there are copious opportunities to hear him. The guy plays in more bands simultaneously than most musicians go through in a lifetime. He is best known for his work in ALO over the last 15 years, but their performances are seldom these days. Over the past few years he has won over many more fans playing with magicgravy, Brokedown in Bakersfield, The Rock Collection, Everyone Orchestra, Guitarmaggedon, One Big Guitar, Incidental Animals and The Terrapin Family Band. In the latter, he has joined forces with Phil Lesh, a union which will inevitably bring him further into the spotlight.
What we’re talking about in this forum is yet another band – Lebo & Friends; one he can call his very own. When he’s playing with all these other lineups, the guy is so damn civil, he has to be provoked in order to unleash a mere fraction of his power. He is so tasteful, even an inkling of his explosiveness is enough to tantalize our ears. Those of us who have seen him shine in his full glory can’t help but crave more. Lebo’s development as a player and collaborator is a story unto itself. When he brought his friends to the Crazy Horse on Saturday July 19 for their Nevada City debut, it was yet another chapter in the saga; one that seemed almost too good to be true.
This lineup has made its rounds, but it was the first time they were playing with Murph Murphy on bass. Murph is a Crazy Horse veteran who has played here with a handful of projects such as High Beamz, The Family Practice and Stu Allen & The Mars Hotel. Whenever his name is attached to something, it’s a guarantee of excellence. Sure enough, his chemistry with Lebo & Co. was off the charts. When it comes to personality, he holds his hand close to the vest. He’s an open book though in the melodic groove, funkification department.
On special occasions, the first song tends to set the tone for the whole show. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” established a vibe of the utmost warmth as Lebo swaddled us in his blanket of emotional sincerity. Judging by the cheers of the Crazy Horse audience throughout the night, everyone was ready to submit to the magic. Anyone who has been seeing him for over 10 years can’t help but be awestruck by his exponential development as a vocalist. He was previously unable to sing at any capacity short of token harmonies. Around 2005 he wrote a couple of songs and began to assert himself with ALO. He was still so timid that his voice was barely audible when he took the mic. His confidence has grown steadily to the point now where he is a bona fide lead singer who can front any band he chooses. It’s clearly a case of summoning the voice that was in him all along. Endearing is the word that best encapsulates it. He sounds like he’s singing just to you in your living room. He sounds like he really cares; and he does.
With this lineup, Lebo has found the total package. They can sing, they can jam, they’ve got amazing originals and impeccable taste in covers. All of the musicians are superb but there are two “x-factors.” The first is keyboardist Jason Crosby. He is without a doubt one of the most impressive keyboard players out there right now. We’ve been hearing his name a lot recently and he exceeded all expectations. He reminded us of Bruce Hornsby circa 1991 when he was a member of the Grateful Dead. His virtuoso fluidity, soaring melodies and cornucopia of ideas propelled every song into the ethers. You could practically visualize his crystalline runs like angelic breath under Lebo’s guitar, carrying it towards unforeseen places. Their synergy is so extraordinary, one has to hope that they will play together long and often.
The other wild card here is vocalist Lesley Grant. She is the human embodiment of soul. Her range opens up their repertoire to a realm where there are very few limits. She holds nothing back with her aggressive style, letting it rip to expose each song in a way both polished and raw. She’s got a bit of growl in her. Throw her irresistible sex appeal into the equation and look out! What’s not to like about a beautiful woman with a classic afro donning tight leather pants? The combination of her vocal splendor and stage presence was equally intoxicating to both male and female audience members. She captivated us on covers like “Grandma’s Hands” and “What’s Going On” – the latter which brought the house down deep in the second set. Then she had us in the palm of her hand, encoring with a gospel-infused take on “Forever Young.”
This band goes heavy on covers which are extremely well-chosen and effective in drawing in new fans. Almost all of them were highlights ranging from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s “Gone, Gone, Gone” (which turned into an intricate, compelling jam), “Listen to the Music” (gloriously stretched out with teases of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower) and Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” with Lebo commanding the room. Crosby lit it up on Soulive’s “Butter Biscuit” with his sparkling jazz chops. The night wasn’t complete without a nod to J.J. Cale on a Lebo favorite, “After Midnight.” They made them all uniquely their own so it wouldn’t be accurate whatsoever to refer to them as a cover band.
We can hardly wait to see what Lebo comes up with as he continues to dedicate himself to his songwriting craft. Based on what he already has, the man reveals a penchant for timeless, enrapturing tunes. The second song of the show was an ALO original which has only been played a few times – “Suspended.” It has never sounded more potent and alluring with Lebo and Lesley sharing the thoughtful refrain – “We were born to live between tension and release.” Opening set two was a relatively new beauty – “Listen to the River.” Lesley flaunted her best Amy Winehouse on the sultry, old school, funk romp. On these and all songs, drummer Ezra Lipp showed off his delicate, nuanced touch. Perfectly balancing funk and jazz stylings, he graced everything with a cerebral flutter. He’s been a frequent Lebo collaborator lately and their familiarity is evident.
The song that coaxed Lebo to toss his hat into the vocal ring way back when is the reggae-tinged “Try.” Over the past ten years it has been a staple of ALO’s setlists and also a go-to whenever he is sitting in with another band. It’s a crowd-pleaser which had seemingly lost its luster due to over-saturation. Well, that notion had to be totally reconsidered upon hearing the Crazy Horse version. This was the epitome of how far Lebo has come as a guitarist, vocalist and improviser. If you don’t know, one of the things that sets him apart from all other guitarists is his rig. He plays a Takamine acoustic with a Humbucker pickup which transforms the sound into what one would expect from a hollow body electric guitar. After much fine tuning, he has mastered his signature tone. It’s rich and velvety, like spreading warm butter on hot toast. As soon as the sound leaves his fingers and enters the group consciousness, the room is enveloped in a collective glow. It’s a very rare sensation.
This feeling was on full display with the first instrumental break in “Try.” As it continued on through its phases, Lebo began to tap into his arsenal of effects, bending notes and venturing into more electronic, ambient terrain. The communication with the rest of the band was tuned in to a high frequency as they collectively interpreted the secret treasure map. This was seriously mature collaboration as one thought led to another at a lucid pace. Turning past the bridge and possibly headed for port, Murph introduced a divergent theme which slung-shot the ensemble down another channel of scintillating improv. Some of us were gasping for air at this point. When they came in for a landing, it felt like a significant achievement. In typical Lebo fashion, he remarked, “That was fun.” He always says that. To him everything is fun. But perhaps he realizes that this is more than fun. With this band he has the ability to create immeasurable inspiration, explore emotional depth and share his gifts with the masses. The world is ready.