Midway through “Janglin” on Friday night at the Greek Theatre, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros ground the song to a halt while frontman Alex Ebert went into the crowd to howl at the moon, which loomed like manna above the silhouetted pine trees that encircle the Greek Theatre.
It was but one of many detours that threatened to unravel the concert given by the 12-piece folk rockers. Although the Magnetic Zeros are known for loose and engaging performances fueled by the estimable charisma of the messianic Ebert, the Greek’s season opener – three week’s ahead of the release of their sophomore album “Here” – seemed held together by love beads and mood rings. If you had your heart set on virtuoso renderings of the band’s paeans to love and unity, I hope you had “Up From Below” in your car CD player for the ride home. If you merely wanted a soundtrack for roasting marshmallows (or leafier substances), the Magnetic Zeros were positively giddy.
- ||| Photos by Laurie Scavo
Ebert – bearded, barefoot and dressed in white – presided over the concert like a committee chairman. Since their habit is to perform without a planned setlist, there were momentum-killing pauses while he asked the band, or the crowd, what they should play next. Between all the ballot-counting, some overlong instrumental jams and the mid-tempo nature of much of Edward Sharpe’s new material, the show moved like a foreign film instead of an action movie.
Not that it was devoid of memorable moments. Ebert nailed “Truth,” a song from his 2011 solo album “Alexander.” His female foil Jade Castrinos was in pristine form for the new song “Fiya Wata,” on which she sings lead. Guitarist Christian Letts was equally sharp fronting the ballad he contributes to the new album, “Child.” And the new song “Mayla” – an ode to opening act (and former Magnetic Zero) Aaron Embry’s daughter, was resplendent.
And the Magnetic Zeros’ principal magic – the conveyance of the most basic emotions via a sprawling collective of guitars, strings, keys, percussion and vocals – still cast a spell during the anthemic “Carries On” and its simple verse “One love / carries on.” “Isn’t it just corny?” Ebert bantered with Castrinos afterward. “Yeah,” she replied, “but it’s true.”
Whether the magic has waned might become evident on the 20-date tour that leads up to the release of “Here.” There was one one moment that the tambourine-toting Edward Sharpe regulars might have noticed Friday – during the breakdown of the band’s hit “Home,” when Ebert and Castrinos gaily reminisce about their first meeting. The normal banter was there until Ebert asked the smiling Castrinos, “Good times, huh?” The question was met with a pregnant pause.
There were pauses in Aaron Embry’s opening set too, but the affable songwriter filled them with exposition. Embry, who has also played with Daniel Lanois, Elliott Smith, Emmylou Harris and Jane’s Addiction, is making stripped-down folk now, and he rewarded early arrivals at the Greek with rapturous tunes from his forthcoming solo debut “Tiny Prayers.”
Embry wields a four-string tenor guitar that, he explained, he tunes like a mandolin, an octave down. It makes for chillingly intimate tones that match the boyish quaver in his vocal tenor. His songs seem so fragile they might break at any moment, yet so pliable they form a strong tether between head and heart. In the grand tradition, he invited and received audience participation during “Your Heart and Mine,” a song that turns heartbreak on its ear. “I will break your heart,” he sang, at which point the crowd shouted “No!” And then, “You will break my heart.” “No!” And finally, “And we will all be broken hearts …”
||| Previously: Edward Sharpe plays new album at KCRW session.
||| Live: Aaron Embry performs May 31 at the Echo.