“We’re a fun band, we like to jam, and we have a strong family vibe,” says Animal Liberation Orchestra guitarist Dan Lebowitz. For this Halloween-weekend gig on their home turf at San Francisco’s Fillmore auditorium, Lebowitz and his clan don sparkling gold costumes provided by Lebowitz’s wife Jenna, who is also their manager. Balloons bounce among the crowd as Lebowitz bounces between Phishy phrases and Grant Green-inspired soul-jazz licks over the band’s tongue-in-cheek grooves. The ensemble possesses a sibling-like, telepathic improvisational sense that can shift directions at any given moment. It’s a trick Lebowitz, keyboardist/vocalist Zach Gill, and bassist Steve Adams have been playing since childhood. “We formed our first band so we could play a talent show when were 12,” recalls Lebowitz. “We went to the same college—UC Santa Barbara—so we could keep playing together, and now here we are at the Fillmore. It’s amazing.”

They’ve been ALO since 1998, which is about the same time Lebowitz experienced a guitar epiphany. “I was playing a variety of solidbody and semi-hollowbody electric guitars,” he recalls. “One night, I broke a string and went to grab my backup, but someone had brought my acoustic in from the van instead. I plugged it into my rig, and it sounded so good—similar to a jazz guitar, but with a bigger body and a flat top.” Lebowitz used that Takamine LTD92 until the band’s van flipped over on tour last year. Remarkably, only the guitar was critically injured. “Better the guitar than me,” he laughs.

Lebowitz currently plays a Takamine EG5445SC-4C strung with D’Addario EJ16s, foregoing the built-in electronics for a Sunrise magnetic soundhole pickup that he’s wired straight to the output jack. Lebowitz is very knowledgeable about how to use gear to achieve the colorful sounds he hears in his fertile mind. “Ultimately, I like an electric sound,” he explains. “I just prefer the acoustic instrument’s feel.” To achieve an array of killer tones, Lebowitz sends his signal to a custom true-bypass system that allows him to choose from myriad pedals, including a Sunrise SB-1 preamp, Musitronics MuTron III, Geoffrey Teese RMC3LE wah, Klon Centaur overdrive, Fulltone Deja Vibe, script logo MXR Phase 90, Analog Man Bi-Comprosser, Foxrox Octron, and Ernie Ball volume pedal. “I leave the Klon overdrive on almost all the time,” says Lebowitz. “With the gain down all the way, it’s a great clean boost, and when I turn the gain up with my foot, it breaks up really naturally, like a classic overdriven amp.” His ’68 Fender Twin Reverb is loaded with JBL D120F speakers. “They’ve been re-coned, so it’s not as valuable,” he admits, “but it actually sounds better to me because these have the super-clean sound associated with JBLs, without the piercing high end that comes from those speakers’ aluminum dust cap.”

Lebowitz’s music, as well as his demeanor, invite comparisons to his old college buddy, Jack Johnson. “We’d jam acoustic guitar late night in the dorms all the time,” says Lebowitz. ALO opened for the easy-going superstar on his summer tour, and Lebowitz sat in on a few of Johnson’s numbers each night, playing acoustic, lap steel, and a Cuban tres guitar. Johnson lends his vocals on the tune “Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down” on ALO’s new release, Fly Between Falls, which will be distributed by Johnson’s Brushfire records beginning in January 2006. “Right now, I’m just enjoying this,” Lebowitz says. “It feels like years of hard work have gelled in the past six months, and it’s exciting to watch the ALO family grow.”