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Everyday people: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Freaky Dreamers

By Josh Potter

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Northern Lights, July 27


Next to preachers and politicians, rock stars are our culture’s great demagogues, secular evangelists who can tell you what to think because they know how to make you feel. So, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise when one comes down with a messiah complex. Throughout Tuesday’s breathing-room-only show, it was unclear if the man onstage with the big beard, torn white jacket and bare chest was Alex Ebert—a 30-something L.A. rocker who scored a massive hit last year with a group of studio cats dolled-up as a family band—or Edward Sharpe, Ebert’s fictitious alter-ego, one part peyote-munching Jesus and one part The Man Who Fell to Earth. A better question, however, is whether the distinction even matters.

Nine-deep with guitars, percussion and trumpet, the Magnetic Zeros fill a stage handily, and with “40 Day Dream,” a Bowie-esque anthem heralding “the magical mystery time,” a one-big-sweaty-family vibe was established in the space Ebert referred to as the crowd’s “living room.” The weirdest part is that they did it without what you might call “hippie music.” With his loungey swagger and dramatic warble, Ebert continually evoked Bowie over radio-ready pop tunes. The chorus on “Janglin” even called to mind Neil Diamond. Only “Desert Song,” a delirious rocker, found Ebert shirtless, arms outstretched, at his most Jim Morrison.

Because of the band’s curiously manicured image, performed against a desert-themed backdrop, it could be easy for the cynic to stand back and question the intentions of a band who so quickly capitalized on the brand of collective reverie freak-folkers have been conjuring in more modest digs over the past decade—but actually standing back is the hard part. As Sharpe, the wild savior, Ebert the artist has crafted an experience with gravitational force. Insisting that this was the audience’s show, requesting that the TV be turned off in the back of the room for better focus, wandering repeatedly into the crowd, and celebrating the rising heat in the room for letting bodies “melt into one another,” Ebert’s first concern was inclusivity. Despite its commercial success, this is the message at the heart of the band’s hit “Home,” a playful love song, sung between Ebert and Jade Castrinos, whose husky voice and cute stage presence deftly offsets Ebert. But the lyric “Home is wherever I’m with you” might well be directed to the audience, without whom the shtick (if it is one) wouldn’t work.

Whether by demagoguery or generosity, it’s a place the audience was more than ready to go. A few bodies wandered out after the radio hit was delivered, but the vast majority remained in the huddle. Forgoing a traditional encore (because a different configuration of the band actually opened the show), Ebert wandered into the crowd again to close the show, requesting that everyone sit with him for one last acoustic tune. As Sharpe, Ebert surely strokes his inner messiah, but the messiah is a martyr, and anonymous amid a sea of heads seemed a fitting way to show that the message is more important than the messenger.


As Heavy as Can Be

The Flaming Lips

Mountain Park, Holyoke, Mass., July 25

If you’ve never seen the Flaming Lips live, you are doing yourself an extreme disservice.

If you’ve seen the band, but in a standard concert venue, you may think you have yourself covered, but you are sincerely mistaken. You need to see them outdoors, in an open field, under the summer stars and a full moon, so that the many gigantic balloons the band launches from the stage fill the night sky like some glorious rainbow love-filled acid-trip; so the confetti and streamers that explode from lead singer Wayne Coyne’s portable cannon fly through the open air in waves of psychedelic rock & roll celebration; so that when the naked lady on the gigantic screen gives birth to the band through her cosmic vagina, sending Coyne bouncing over the crowd in a gigantic bubble, you can be there to help propel him over the gasping concertgoers; so that when the band sing “She Don’t Use Jelly” early on in the set you can shout the lyrics along with a field full of kids and watch Coyne smile like a proud father; and so that when the show ends with “Do You Realize?” you can shed a tear of joy along with a few hundred other sentimental fucks and pass it off as sweat from the muggy summer night.

After seeing the Lips in such circumstances, memories of past shows may seem sad and hollow in comparison. You may wonder why you’ve been paying for average shows put on by mere mortals. Other bands don’t ride the shoulders of a man in a bear suit, or dress up fan members in orange and white jumpsuits and have them go-go dance along on stage like some ’70s family jam.

All that was part of the experience Saturday night at Mountain Park in Holyoke, Mass. Unfortunately, thanks to the band’s increased commercial exposure, the experience has become dominated by frat-stoners with Rasta hats, tie-dyed shirts, too much beer and lots of weed. And the granola-gangstas were there en mass, expecting the band to “jam out like Phish or some shit dude,” as the guy behind me wearing a wifebeater put it. The band’s theatrics must have been awesome for them, as high as they all were, but the music couldn’t have had the same effect.

Coyne was left demanding a response. “Come on, motherfuckers!” he would shout repeatedly like he was suddenly the lead singer of Hatebreed. The diehards would woo and the Abercrombie-hippies would continue to chatter with each other and play with their iPhones. When the band led a sing-along of “Happy Birthday” for a celebrating 9-year-old, Coyne began seeming like an acid-rock Walt Disney, looking for joy from his followers when all they had to offer was modest appreciation. It was clearly driving Coyne bonkers as he gave a speech about loving things even if they don’t love you back. He means what he says: When a woman in the crowd had a bad reaction to Coyne’s strapped-on strobe light, he paused the concert and asked everyone to chill out for a few minutes while she recovered.

The band’s efforts to be deliverers of joy can be at times a little creepy, in a Mr. Rogers way, and it seemed that much of the music took a back seat to the antics. The Lips new album Embryonic is a sprawling, dancy, noisy masterpiece that deserves to be explored—but it wasn’t. (Granted, it doesn’t exactly translate into the happy, huggy, shroud the band’s live show is draped in.) If fewer bubbles or bear suits had meant more songs, that would have been OK.

But who would have noticed? Even when the band encored with the one song everybody seemed to know (“Do You Realize?”) Coyne still had to fight to rile the crowd out of its funk. Maybe it was the heat and the mud, or maybe people were just looking for a different kind of party, but the night ended in direct opposition to the seize-the-day message of “Realize.” Coyne was giving the audience his heart and they didn’t seem to notice.

—David King

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