Back on March 5, I posted some vids as part of my Friday Night Videos series by a few of my favorite bands of that moment: Twin Sister, Broken Bells, Josh Rouse, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I still haven't seen Twin Sister in concert, but since the time of that post, I've seen Josh Rouse (May 22) and Broken Bells (June 10), and last night I saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros perform at Atlanta's Variety Playhouse.
They were fantastic.
The first thing one needs to know about ES&TMZ is that there is no Edward Sharpe in the band: he's a fictional character, reminiscent of Gong's Zero the Hero. Apparently, after breaking up with his girlfriend, moving out of his house, and joining a 12-step program for addiction, lead singer Alexander Ebert began work on a story about a messianic figure named Edward Sharpe. According to Alex, Sharpe "was sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind...but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love."
The ES&TMZ story is told in a feature-length movie being released in a dozen installments. The first segment, below, opens with home footage shot by Alex's mother of his father holding baby Alex while chanting in Monument Valley (what do your home movies look like?). This first segment is about Alex's reckoning with the middle name his father secretly wrote on his birth certificate, a Native American word meaning "Devil," or "Demon" (hey, before you pass judgement, remember that the Buddha named his son Rahula, which means "fetter").
The second chapter of the story has a more cinematic look and feel than the first. In this part, the Edward Sharpe character pays for his shocking act of patricide in the first segment, but eventually he leads a revolt and escapes from prison and is joined by a deserter, a conscientious-objector guard. I'm not aware of any subsequent installments in this series, and would appreciate it if any kind readers could point me toward any more parts.
Anyway, none of this is in any way necessary to watching and enjoying the band in concert. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are an expansive hipster collective of 10 to 12 musicians who apparently are not very big believers in boundaries - between the performers and the audience, between the warm-up acts and their band, or even between who is and isn't in the Magnetic Zeros.
Last night's concert opened with a set by Atlanta's Tyler James, a veteran of the ATL indie scene, a self-described veteran of local venues like Eddie's Attic and Smith's Old Bar, and an occasional member of ES&TMZ. James kicked off the evening on guitar, leading his 5-piece band through some original compositions.
After the first song, James moved over to the piano, where he played most of his set.
After a couple of songs, however, James brought out a a guest player, Aaron Embry, another occasional member of the Magnetic Zeros. Embry sat at the piano for one song while James went back to playing the guitar, and he stayed on stage when James returned to the piano and closed the set with Billy Preston's Nothing From Nothing.
The second act of the night was James' guest performer, Aaron Embry, who initially took the stage alone. I don't know much about Embry, but it's telling that the only thing posted on his My Space page is Yukoku, a 1966 Japanese art film.
After introducing himself and his polka-dot shirt to the audience, he played one solo number on piano, and then called the rest of "his" band on stage, which was actually the Magnetic Zeros, including their charismatic back-up singer Jade Castrinos.
By the third song, Alex Ebert, Mr. Edward Sharpe himself, came on stage, completing the ES&TMZ line-up. Wearing his characteristic flowing white shirt and with his partially-braided hair tied up in a bun, Alex has been described as looking like someone just back from an ashram. He sat cross-legged on the floor but I couldn't see what he was playing as my view was partially obscured by the heads of the taller persons in front of me. I think I counted 10 people on stage, including players on trumpet, bass, percussion, drums, accordion, a couple guitars, piano and vocals, and whatever the hell Alex was doing on the floor. Tyler James from the first act even came back on stage for a song or two.
This middle set, then, was basically Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros performing the music of their piano player, Aaron Embry. For some reason, though, after that set was finished, they took an almost 40-minute break before coming back on stage as ES&TMZs. Since the whole band had already been on stage, and their instruments were already tuned and ready, I don't know what took them so long to come back. "How long can it take to get high?," a person next to me asked, apparently not aware of Alex's participation in a 12-step program.
But they finally did come back on stage, Alex now shirtless, and performed a joyful and moving, nearly 90-minute set. Early on, but not as the opener, they played their song Janglin', the one you might have heard in the Ford Fiesta commercial, and toward the end, but not as the closer, they played Home, the song you might have heard in the trailers for the movie Cyrus. At any given moment, anywhere from 10 to 12 musicians were on stage, including Alex, Jade, Aaron and Tyler, giving the performance a loose, almost Prairie Home Companion feel.
Alex worked the crowd well, chatting sincerely with those standing near the stage (rather than shouting the gratuitous "How ya' doin', Atlanta?" to the crowd), holding hands offered to him from the audience, and even crawling off stage occasionally to sing in the mob around him. When they all sang "We come back to heal ya" during the joyful chorus to Janglin', the concert began to feel like an old-time medicine show or a revival. There were times when I got goosebumps and there were times when tears came to my eyes, and some of those times were one and the same.
The audience was enthusiastic, which Alex noted and appreciated, saying that the evening was special, a "50-50 effort." He probably says that, or something similar, to every audience every evening, but it still felt and sounded sincere. Obviously, they got called back for an encore, and Alex admitted they they would have come back on stage even if we had been silent, but that he and the band were touched by both the volume and the enthusiasm of our intervening cheering.
They played nearly a half dozen songs during their encore, including a lovely tribute to Jade ("Yes, Jade is the girl of the hour"). Ms. Castrinos is as natural and unaffected a singer as one can hope to see and hear. She's the kind of person whose hands subconsciously grip the hem of her skirt as she sings, and wraps the material around her fingers like a shy little girl. The audience cheered loudly every time she took the microphone, and had called for both the person and the song Jade during the encore.
For the last song, Alex did something I've never seen a performer do before in my nearly 40 years of attending concerts, and he may be the only one who could pull it off. Like a few times earlier, he climbed off stage and into the audience, but this time he got everyone to cooperate and sit down around him on the dirty and sticky floor. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of a circle of admiring fans, he sang a simple song, accompanied only by a single guitar.
As I said earlier, they aren't about boundaries, and after blurring the distinction between bands by all playing and supporting one another, they broke down the final barrier between performer and audience as Alex sat shirtless and sweaty on the unwashed floor in the middle of the crowd. No one tried to interrupt this final song and no security was needed, but instead we all just sat as one communal group, an extension of that expansive collective known as The Magnetic Zeros.
At various times, several performers made references, most explicitly by pianist Aaron Embry and more obliquely by Alex Ebert, to a conviction that we are all one, similar to the Buddha's teaching that self and others are not two separate things. I don't normally buy concert merchandise, but as we left the show and I saw a black t-shirt bearing the words "We Are Each Other" and a picture of a seven-fingered hand (a composite outline of a right- and left-hand) , I had to buy one, even though they didn't have it in my size and I have to squeeze into a medium.
The current ES&TMZ tour continues through the South before the band performs three shows in New York City on July 21, 22, and 23, and wraps up in Denver on August 11. I recommend that you see then if you can.
Postscript: This evening, HBO selected an excerpt from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros' song 40 Day Dream for the closing music on their comedy, Hung.