Photography by Amanda Koellner
Within the friendly confines of Chicago’s Northside Old Town School of Folk Music, one can satiate just about any musical whim: hip-hop dance classes, beginner guitar lessons, group vocal training, and, last night, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. The performance was part of a six-date mini-tour to promote their upcoming album, PersonA. Intimacy was the modus operandi for venue selection, and the cozy charm of the Old Town School proved a worthy choice.
After a surprisingly impressive open-mic hosted by the band, lead-singer Alex Ebert slinked out from behind the red velvet curtain sporting a long brown trench coat and a half-empty bottle of wine. “You guys don’t mind if I drink a little bit, do you?” Ebert chimed. The crowd immediately offered up a complementary Laguanitas IPA and he had his answer.
The set featured just under 10 songs all off the forthcoming PersonA. Although Ebert prefaced the performance saying, “this is just like you all hanging out with us at practice,” the show felt polished. Despite the presence of lyric sheets (“just in case”), transitions were tight, harmonies well-constructed, and the chemistry was palpable—with 10 musicians on stage, that level of communication is hard to fake.
PersonA singles “Hot Coals” and “No Love Like Yours” drew the strongest response because of the crowd’s familiarity. The meandering seven-and-a-half minute “Hot Coals” filled up the space infectiously, aided by the acoustics of a room in which no seat is more than 45 feet from the stage. Airy piano and delay effects characterized much of the new material, at moments treading the type of psychedelic folk popularized by an early 2000’s Animal Collective.
Make no mistake, the classic boom-clap rhythmic structures and chest thumping choruses that elevated Edward Sharpe out of obscurity remain—take a song like “Free Stuff”, for example. As a whole, however, there is a less conventional feel to the music, perhaps resultant from the more democratic songwriting approach the group took on this record.
One drawback of the lack of distance between the band and crowd was, well, the lack of distance. It allowed for hugs and informal conversation, but also for obnoxiously repetitive song requests. Ebert, clearly in his element, handled heckling with grace and good humor, poking fun at himself and the crowd. “You calling out [“40 Day Dream”] here is the equivalent of saying ‘Free Bird’,” he joked.
Towards the end, more emotional songs came forward. “Lullabye”, a ballad about Ebert’s daughter, expressed his paternal fears, recognizing that he may also be one of the things she needs protecting from. It was an honest omission, and one that can’t come easy. Then came “Perfect Time”, a song which Ebert claimed would speak plainly about the Jade controversy. While the song was unquestionably beautiful, it still felt incredibly cryptic—unfortunately, the Internet has had no problem filling in the blanks.
Chicago fans who missed out can still attend an exclusive front-to-back screening of the album April 1st at the Chicago Athletic Association building from six to eight PM.