November 8th, 2013 | Live reviews

Imagine glitter and sequins and lights and caramel corn and costumes and strange masks of animals and mimes and monsters, all packed into a real life circus tent, and a crowd of enthusiastic smiling folks milling around a rotating stage, many of them as dashing as the hippies up on it. Alexander Ebert, the Magnetic Zeros magnetic lead singer and band leader, has just handed his microphone to a blonde, normal-looking woman from the circus tent’s packed crowd. Encouraged to tell us a story, she instead busts out with a little Halloween joke. “What kind of bees give milk? BOO… BIES!!!”

Alex takes the microphone back. “That joke was definitely worth paying the fire marshal for going over time.”

It’s just past midnight, and the last four-plus hours have flown by like a man shot out of a cannon. It’s very clear I made a mistake by showing up only on the last night of the four day fracas.

Sunday evening at the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’s Big Top event definitely still seems magical; the entertainers seem enervated, not tired or dialing it in. But it’s becoming clear that many of the people in the packed circus tent tonight have been here on multiple days, seeing all the great musical acts that I missed, including Frank Fairfield, Fool’s Gold, Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang, Rocco DeLuca, and probably a handful of locals who aren’t even in the program but who have been bragging on Facebook for weeks about their inclusion in this special event. And that’s not even including the comedians and burlesque acts I’ve missed, like sketch comedy king Chris Trew, Breakfast Show host Adam Shenkman, belly dancer Kristina Nekyia, and the delightfully roaring 20’s style Cleo Viper… the list goes on, and includes several folks who rarely perform on this big of a stage, for an audience that would probably normally prefer smoking doobies in a field watching Mumford & Sons to being up late watching someone be-sequined all dancing.

Actually, that’s not fair. There are tons of indie rockers here and loads of hippies, but also some folks dead-set on dressing “circus,” with top hats and tails. As a dapper young man myself, I always like to be with people who dress up, and there are some wild outfits tonight. But there are also moms and dads and kids, and folks who look like the guy who’ll query the production DB for you at work tomorrow, early-to-bed folks who seemed glad the show started earlier than the advertised gate time.

That’s why we almost missed Las Cafeteras, though luckily my date and I debarked from the Chinatown Gold Line on the early side by sheer accident. This seven member band is from East L.A., practically walking distance from my own house, so I’m sad to say I’d never heard of them.

But seeing them once is enough to etch them in your memory forever—this combination of different Afro-Mexican styles (mostly Son Jarocho) with a little rock was wildly fun, full of calls and responses, a mind-numbing rendition of “La Bamba” (which apparently was written 300 year ago, or so they said), and a very effective use of the circus’s round stage.

The stage slowly rotated as they played, facing each other, allowing all of us a good view of the various instruments, which were pretty novel to my normally jaded eyes: the marimbol, a key box base that looks like one of those music boxes with the metal tines you pluck with your fingers, only giant-sized, contrasted with tiny acoustic guitars and a mule’s jawbone, which was being used as a kind of rhythm instrument. Actually “rhythm” could easily be a one-word review of this band, who even incorporated zapateado dancing into their routine, clogged-out loudly by the band’s female members on raised platforms for all to hear, as their tutus and tights sparkled under the tent’s stage lights.

It made us thirsty just watching all that loud, joyous dancing, so me and the date sauntered off to the booze tent. It, along with all the carny food vendor tents, was outside of the ticketed area, so theoretically you could have just walked in from Chinatown without a ticket and gotten your fill of carny crazy for the price of a club soda. I’m talking people in animal masks cavorting about, fun house mirrors, a one-man folkie accompanying silent films on a small screen with a keyboard, all while an oddly captivating automated marionette show grinded through its action, including some characters that looked a little politically incorrect…

I was particularly enamored of the moonshine cocktails. It’s my firm belief that the only thing good about the 2000s was the increase in chipotle-based flavors, and the 2010s might wind up being notable solely for the increasing availability of grain-neutral spirits like Midnight Moon, which suddenly seems to be everywhere!

My Appalachian buzz made it that much more delightful back at the main tent, where we caught circus acts like the comedic sword-swallowing of Lucent Dossier, or the gymnastic feats of balance by the four man Torque Method.

They weren’t quite Cirque du Soleil good, but that just made it better, like how watching amateur sports means you get more triple plays: you knew that when one of their guys stood on top of three tables balancing on a platform on a rolling cylinder, he might easily fall to his death. They seemed to know it too, and were coyly spotting each other throughout their feats of agility, though they were all smiles and gorgeous bravado when facing the audience. That, plus the sinewy bodies and costumes, reminded me a bit of Menudo, if the’d been allowed to grow old and become familiar with their inner trapeze artist. As ringmaster Christopher Wonder opined, “I’m not gay, but last night I masturbated while thinking about these guys.”

Wonder himself had been a Silver Lake icon for years, even having his mug muraled, Amazing Colossal Man size, onto the side of a building near Sunset Junction at one point. But he’s disappeared into Italy, and the European scene for years now, returning Stateside only occasionally to perform magic at Long Beach’s yearly Ink-In-Iron festival (the dude has major tats), or maybe to scandalize the late supper crowd at the Magic Castle.

I knew Wonder would be here, but I thought it would be merely to perform some of his patented alcohol-fueled magic. I didn’t realize he would be hosting, introducing acts and basically serving as ringmaster! But there he was, dropping single-entendre jokes and telling us that puppeteer Scott Land was a “fucking rock star.”

And he was! Scott Land is the dude who did puppets for Team America, which means he rivals even Bob Baker for hipness points, and definitely had enough skill to do a sensational one-man show from atop two folding tables. Perhaps the most magical moment of the night was Land’s first marionette, a clown-child who came on the stage and inflated a balloon that carried him up and down in the air. (As a most-of-the-time vegan, I won’t opine about the actual supermarket chicken carcass he turned into a marionette and made lay an egg… suffice to say it was a fowl thing to do.)

By then it was almost Magnetic Zeros time and… hey, what’s this?

Suddenly Reggie Watts is on the stage, a surprise guest, doing the same kind of crazy vocal-loop based music you might know from Comedy Bang-Bang or the Key and Peele theme, but live! Fresh! This guy’s mouth beats are always original, perhaps even besting Beardyman. I’m clearly a fan, and haven’t seen Watts on stage methinks since Bumbershoot 2010. Just look at that majestic hair, and those beautiful S-curves held in place with suspenders!

Now it’s finally, finally time for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros! By contrast with all that had come before, and considering it’s their party, the band seems a little nonchalant in their casual circus duds, shuffling on stage and asking the crowd “What do you want to hear,” before finally kicking things off with “Better Days.”

But why be uptight? Alex Ebert is the literal ring master of all he surveys. He has a bale of hay to sit on, two drummers, about ten other folks, a blonde with forties hair playing accordion, a stubbly dude playing a full xylophone, and Jade Castrinos to help fill in the rough parts. They even bring Christopher Wonder back to the stage, where he performs magic and hypnotizes a chicken as the band grooves around him.

There’s confetti everywhere, and smoke machines, and big bright circus lights, and more animal masks, as a group of lithe young women in slightly skimpy skirts come on stage to dance like anthropomorphic mice and zebras for a tune or so.

Despite the visual enticement, I find myself not enjoying the first couple songs, not all the way. I’m waiting for Jade to sing. There is no song in the Magnetic Zeros cannon that is truly worth its salt if you can’t at least hear Jade Castrinos singing in the background, and their best ones have her front and center. Perhaps Ebert knows this, as he seems to be using her as a crescendo, starting more or less without her and then adding her slowly but surely more and more as the songs progress.

Goddam is she good, so good that every time Ebert stops the show to thank the bands or the crowd or tell stories about his dad, I want him to shut up and get back to the Jade parts. She’s so good that I’m depicting her in the kind of ghost-like white light that Michael Jackson would use to aggrandize himself to an audience who already treated him like a god.

It’s the last night for this crowd, and for all the bands, and I’m recognizing some other local celebs (hey, there’s the guy from Quazar & the Bamboozled, who predicted giant ensemble bands like the Magnetic Zeros in ways still not fully understood by most humans). The crowd is getting more frenzied, and it seems like everyone is up on their feet, rushing up towards the stage as it circles round and round, a few old folks and boyfriends still lingering in the bleachers.

Near the witching hour, the band decides to conclude with “Home”—how many bands refuse to play their biggest hit, yet here they are, poised to conclude with it the way Johnny Cash always played “Folsom Prison.”

If you’ve read my writing, you may know I don’t love-love all this band’s songs. But “Home” is possibly the best pop song of the 2000s, and still their best tune despite two solid albums now that have followed its appearance on Up From Below in 2009. Castrinos and Ebert are singing the chorus now, together. “La la la la, take me home. Mama, I’m coming home…”

And then the band gets a little softer, and Castrinos stops Ebert cold. “Did you ever realize the similarity between that lyric and the Ozzy Osbourne song? ‘Mama, mama I’m coming home?’”

“I think about that all the time,” says Ebert. This is normally the part of the show where he and Jade tell a goofy story together, something to capture the ad-libbed feel of the “falling out of my window” sketch they worked up on the original version of “Home.” But after four nights, they’re out of ideas, and the bit’s going nowhere.

And so Ebert goes out to the audience members, who is more than eager to be a part of the show, and asks people to come up and tell stories. We get the bee joke, and the ubiquitous “my cousin used to know you guys, maaaan” story, and a pretty amazing yarn about a port-o-potty becoming a teleportation device to allow people to visit the White House and demand that Magnetic Zeros songs be used during Obama’s State of the Union.

But the best stories come from an old, stocky, grey-haired man, who comes on the stage at Ebert’s request. Hailed as “JJ,” might he be the guy name checked along with Heath Ledger in their deep album cut “Come In Please?” He must be—he regales us with confused but touching stories of watching the band record “Home” and other hits back in the day, holding up placards in the studio to help them remember the words. His not-stage-ready stories help turn this conclusion not only into a celebration of the last four days, but of the last four years of the band, when they’ve gone from upstarts to stalwarts, always bringing us fragile, sometimes flawed beauty.

Not every song tonight was good, and not everything they’ve ever done was perfect. But wouldn’t you rather have a ton of music, and a ton of good times, and a singer like Jade, and a band of sincerity, and some caramel corn, and a song with fucking whistles in it, than… I dunno, every other thing that’s currently happening in indie rock now?

I like irony, and humor, but I’m touched by the genuine attempt, and success, of making magic tonight. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have already changed the conversation. And now they’ve brought the circus to town.

And now it’s over, and isn’t it ironic? The Gold Line stops running at midnight on Sundays—we had to hoof it towards Union Station, and spend the whole cab ride back to Highland Park explaining to the cabbie that we’d been to a circus, but it was really was a rock show, but it was really was a homecoming.

-D. M. Collins