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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros at KRCW/Annenberg's "Sound In Focus" 7/9/16. Photo by Justin Dingwall (@justinslens)


You ever had a band you were jonesing to see live but it just never worked out? A band you positively knew would melt your face or make you feel kinda funny in your special places if you were to ever just hear their music while breathing the same air as the musicians on stage and rubbing elbows with a crowd full of other zealots and aficionados who just “got it”?

And yet the year they played Coachella, it was your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. And the night they were at the El Rey you actually had tickets but were writhing in pain from the ill-advised and undercooked street meat you had the night before. And then over time, there were the three or four other shows you could’ve gone to but you live on the West Side and even the potential for spiritual transformation via the power of musical transcendence isn’t always enough to get you to battle rush hour traffic on the eastbound 10.

So it’s not like you’re so bummed that you go and write a sad poem about missing the show. You’re just sort of like…”damn, I really would like to see those guys”. For the last 5 years, that’s been my relationship with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Repeated near misses. Constant desire. But then what happens when you finally show up? It’s like that weird moment when you’ve been dating someone for months with no sexy time and then you finally get naked together. After all that anticipation, what’s it gonna be like? Have you been putting the nookie on a pedestal? By delaying gratification for so long did you actually annihilate your window to maximize any sense of true elation? The risk is real. But thankfully, at Saturday’s show, such was not the case. I finally popped my Magnetic Zero cherry. And it was glorious.

After so many near misses, finally face to face. And there’s no disappointment. No let down. No regrets that this first encounter is in Century City instead of Pappy & Harriet’s, a Tennessee farmhouse, an Oregon forest, or some super dope Austin dive that none of us have ever heard of but is always chock full of half naked bohemians. In the most bland, soulless, and corporate nook of the very city that birthed the dynamic alter ego of lead singer Alex Ebert and his merry band of musical rapscallions, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros take the stage and as I said before and will say again – it is glorious.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros at KRCW/Annenberg's "Sound In Focus" 7/9/16. SetlistOpening with “Man on Fire”, the bass on the amps is turned up heavy so that you can really feel the steady “thump… thump… thump…” of the kickdrum as it echoes out over the plaza. That beat sinks deep into your dome, deep into your heart – think Matthew McConaughey’s 5 minutes in Wolf of Wall Street for the beautifully counterintuitive harmony between sound and venue … or don’t. As that beat carries on, the rest of the band slowly, steadily starts to layer on. With no less than 10 people on stage, it sneaks up on you how rich a sonic tapestry they’re able to weave. Acoustic guitars, standup bass, upright piano, two full drum sets, a mishmosh of horns and strings and keys and percussion. And almost everyone on stage is mic’d up to add their voice to the smooth harmonics of the backing vocals.

It’s a big old-timey family. Raucous and carefree and yet surprisingly delicate and precise. So much to look at. So much to focus on. But of course, your eyes keep coming back to Alex Ebert. As he jerks and glides across the stage, he personifies the “hipster or homeless” aesthetic in a way that conjures up and radiates the energy of a man-bun, hippie Elvis. Because much like Elvis, he’s a natural born showman. He has that intangible it factor. A sort of shameless desire for everyone’s attention but the ability to earn that attention and to reward it once received. And while I know it’s unnecessary hyperbole to drop an Elvis reference, Ebert does have a certain swivel to the hips that is very Elvis-esque. Anyhow, with or without disclaimers, he’s one hell of a charismatic man.

Not long into the set, he leaps off the stage and perches like the Cheshire Cat on the thin metal railing between band and crowd. It’s where he spends a good chunk of the show, as close to the crowd as possible while remaining just high enough off the ground that he remains visible to the folks in the back. Because the Zeros are a leave no fan behind experience.

Weaving their way from “Truth” to “Jangle” to a thunderous cover of “Instant Karma”, the band is equal parts orchestra and equal parts vaudeville. With Alex darting around the stage like a free radical, braking on a dime to talk to the crowd (or himself) or to kick around the beach ball that made its way on stage, or to whisper a secret and giggle into a band mate’s ear, it all seems a little chaotic. Festive, but on the verge of collapse. And yet if at ANY moment Alex snaps his fingers, the entire band jumps in on perfect cue. It almost makes you wonder whether the pandemonium is rehearsed or whether they’ve done it all so many thousands of times that they’ve just gotten that good at reading each other.

About six songs in, the sun is fully set and night settles in. Alex looks around, a little lost. “We got a lotta time to kill” he says. And then with a mischievous smile, “Any requests?” They haven’t played many of their signature songs yet so it’s a pretty safe gimmick – but a fun one – and the crowd goes slightly apeshit as people climb over each other to shout their suggestions. Literally. The girl behind me plants her hands on my shoulders and like a spider monkey pulls herself up and over me towards the stage screaming, “I Don’t Wanna Pray!”. Which they played.

And maybe all that simian energy is why they follow up with a cover of “Apeman” by the Kinks – a most excellent song to demonstrate how self-righteous hipsterdom as well as self-conscious mockery thereof hasn’t changed all that dramatically in the last 45 years. Is that the definition of post-modernity? No time to complete that thought as a ragtime version of “Better Days” gets everyone even frothier. It’s a spastic crowd up front. But a happy and friendly kind of spastic. Let’s call it an exuberant enthusiasm. By the time the band unleashes “40 Day Dream”, they’re almost giddy because of the incredibly high level of stoke coursing through the plaza. Alex is hurling his lanky frame around the stage with even more urgency now. Convulsing like a revival tent preacher. Possessed by the Devil or God or both. Like a man-bun Jesus Christ throwing himself on the sword of his own genius, a sacrificial lamb offered up to atone for our collective sin. And what sin is that? Jamming so fucking hard to this awesome music. If it be so, let us all continue to bask in the joy of such transgression. (NOTE: I later read that Alex conjured up the alter ego of Edward Sharpe as a messianic figure “sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind, but [who keeps] getting distracted by girls and falling in love.” What an amazing testament to him as a performer that he can emit that energy and elicit that sort of response without speaking it or spelling it out. That’s badass.)

It was around this point that the show gets interesting, at least for those who are looking and listening closely. Alex starts to lose his voice. He doesn’t do much to draw attention to it. But it’s definitely happening. Suddenly the depth of Ebert’s dynamic vocal range is brought into full focus as he stops short of hitting the same notes that he’s been nailing all night. And this is where I gain tremendous respect for him as an artist. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t freak out. He just shifts the focus to the band, rocks out even harder as his bandmates take their solos. The crowd has already been a part of the performance so he takes the mic to the audience, let’s them sing the lyrics. And at one point the percussionist takes the mic and belts out a song with such power and soul that a lot of us drop our jaws and are like “Uhh…who the hell is THAT guy???”

This makes the transition to the finale all the more seamless. Bringing Imarhan back on stage, Ed and the Zeros have the Algerians help build layer upon layer of percussion as they close with “Home”. About halfway through, the PA cuts out. It’s perfect. Because the band and the crowd keep singing. Filling the space. Nomads, all of us. One way or another. In Los Angeles. A city with no center. A city constantly defying itself. Constantly challenging it’s own to find where we fit. And here we are. “Home is wherever I’m with you.” Home isn’t a GPS point, an address, a nationality. Home is a human interaction. It’s where you build community. It’s where you find love.

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