Coming off a weekend of main stage appearances at All Good and Gathering of the Vibes Music Festivals, on July 23 California’s Animal Liberation Orchestra made the short drive into New York City to play a completely different type of venue: the main cabin of the _Jewel, a boat designed for tourist cruises of the East River. Organized by Rocks Off, who runs similar musical cruises throughout the summer with various acts, the evening offered an intimate concert experience, two great sets of ALO’s trademark funk-pop and some unbeatable views of New York.
Outfitted as a dedicated pleasure cruiser, the Jewel offered many familiar concert amenities, including an open dance floor and a full bar in the back of the main cabin. Other aspects of the venue were less conventional, including the conspicuous absence of a raised stage. Instead the band crammed their gear into the bow of the ship, sitting and standing on the same level plane as the audience. This orientation restricted sight lines but helped foster a communal spirit and energy between the audience and musicians.
Right around 8 PM the house system started blaring Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun In The Summertime” and the Jewel set sail, with the band sliding into position moments later and picking up the “Hot Fun” riff themselves as we all pulled away from Kip’s Bay together. ALO launched into their first song as the Jewel headed south on the East River, playing “Possibly Drown” with its nautically-appropriate lyrics. After an energetic “All Alone,” Gill pointed out one of the technical complications of performing at sea: without a proper way to ground the electrical circuits he kept getting electric shocks from his vocal microphone. He and bassist Steve Adams remedied the issue by covering their mics with socks, quite possibly pulled right off their feet.
The upbeat feel continued with “Blew Out The Walls” from their newest album Sounds Like This and a mildly funky cover of Dire Straits’ classic “Money For Nothing” as the Jewel passed under the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. The close quarters allowing for easy interaction between the band and audience, ALO accepted a handful of fan requests during the set, the first being “Shine” from their 2007 album Roses and Clover, which featured Gill on melodica during the intro and guitarist Dan Lebowitz on lap steel for a solo that brought the crowd in for a closer look. With daylight still visible through the ship’s panoramic windows, the Jewel soon approached the mouth of the East and brought the Statue of Liberty into view off the starboard bow behind the band just as they started “I Love Music.” The first set ended with crowd favorite “Barbecue” as we passed Battery Park.
During set break the sun set completely and the Jewel reversed direction, swinging past Ellis Island on the way back up river. The band started the music back up serenading Relix contributor Scott Bernstein with a round of “Happy Birthday” before things really got going with “Pobrecito” and “Wasting Time,” which featured a verse of drummer Dave Brogan on lead vocals and another lap steel solo from Lebowitz. The second set’s drawn out, jammy feel continued with “Plastic Bubble” and “Speed of Dreams” while the slowly-moving tapestry of white and orange city lights wrapped around all sides of the boat. The first musical peak of the night came when the band treated the crowd to a rare “Sexo y Drogas” by fan request. Adams quickly took command of the song with his lead bass part and an extended solo that literally shook the plastic ceiling tiles of the cabin. The bass solo quickly gave way to a full band freak-out jam that boosted the collective energy to new heights.
Coming back to earth for a moment, Gill thanked the fans and proclaimed that ALO had found their “new East Coast family” in New York, promising to return and make the boat cruise a recurring tradition. They closed out the second set with their new single “Dead Still Dance” before taking a faux encore/extended pause, being unable to leave the makeshift stage area. They picked things back up with the sunny “Walls of Jericho” before shifting to an (appropriately) jammed-out cover of the Grateful Dead’s “They Love Each Other,” which again brought a swell of energy and dancing, especially in Lebo’s wailing guitar solo.
Everyone knew the night was coming to an end as the Jewel approached port, but a devoted fan all the way from South Africa convinced Gill and Co. to take one more request, prompting a version of “Girl, I Want To Lay You Down” that they sped through in frantic double time, trying their best to fit the whole song in before docking. This amped-up burst ended up having an opposite effect though—by the last verse everyone was in such a frenzy that the band completely ignored their curfew to play a crazy “Time Is Of The Essence,” which shifted into a brief cover of Steely Dan’s “Reeling In The Years” before giving way to a massive ending jam. The crew had turned the cabin lights on by the end of the marathon encore, but the party refused to end until the music did.
Alas, the music eventually did stop, and the crowd disembarked the Jewel having completely missed the rainstorms earlier that night. Between the scenery and intimate, interactive performance environment, the Rocks Off cruise turned out to be one of the best possible ways to experience both New York City and ALO. Hopefully the cruise does become a regular tradition—maybe next time they’ll close with the hyper-fitting “Water Song.”