The best rock concert is a communal experience, as much about people coming together for a shared goal as it is about entertainment. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros show a deeper understanding of that concept than just about any other group on the scene. Led by singer/songwriter Alex Ebert, the fast-rising indie folk band has spread its eccentric gospel on two acclaimed records that encourage listener identification, whether or not one buys into Ebert’s concept about the messianic figure Edward Sharpe. That special, communal magic was in full effect during the band’s debut Austin City Limits taping.
Working without a setlist, the band opened with “Man On Fire,” the first track on its latest LP Home. Beginning with a low-key vocal thrum, the song revved up to a sort of indie rock hoedown, as instruments got added along the way and Ebert made the first of several trips out into the audience. By the time the song was over, Ebert and the crowd, already pumped to see the band play, had bonded.
The interaction between audience and the band was no surprise, given the obvious influence of old-time gospel on the music. “That’s What’s Up” (with its funky synth riff), “I Don’t Wanna Pray” (a pro-spirituality/anti-organized religion polemic) and the downright inspirational “Up From Below” made good use of gospel’s dynamics, with celebratory melodies and group vocals that rose, fell and rose again. “If You Wanna,” “40 Day Dream” and the radio hit “Home” became exercises in call-and-response, as Ebert engaged the crowd so they became part of the performance. On “Janglin’,” an audience request, Ebert left the stage once again, climbing into the mezzanine and sharing a drink with a fan. Music aside, the most important thing Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros have borrowed from gospel music is its inclusiveness – the idea that we’re all in this together, so let’s sing!
Not everything was indie rock hosannahs. “Fiya Wata” was full-throated folk rock, as well as a showcase for Ebert’s onstage/vocal foil Jade Castrinos. The pretty indie folk of “Mayla” manifested orchestral pop trappings, as if the band was listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while recording. The atmospheric “Desert Song” floated like nothing else in the set, while the lovely “Child,” sung by guitarist Christian Letts, proved a respite from the otherwise high energy.
The show climaxed with “Om Nashi Me.” Ebert explained that the song grew out of nonsense syllables, but that the title was Sanskrit for “Oh infinite nakedness.” Whether or not it’s true, the tune’s undeniable spiritual dimension fully engaged both band and crowd, as the latter eagerly contributed clapping in 6/8 time and the former lost themselves in the “And I love you forever” message. “Om Nashi Me” not only brought the show to an undeniable peak, but served as almost a statement of purpose for the band itself.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros delivered one of the most unusual yet accessible shows we’ve ever had the privilege to record. We hope you’ll tune in early next year to see for yourself.