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Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros Charm at KCRW's Berkeley Street Session

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The entirety of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Photo by Jeremiah Garcia.
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Here's the thing -- it's impossible not to be charmed by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, especially standing six feet away from them. They look like Fagin's Ragtime band, like the hippiest hippies in all of Los Angeles got together to throw a sonic tent revival. But the charm, man the charm.

Performing for one of KCRW's Berkley Street Sessions (think small studio session opened to about 175 "friends" in Bob Clearmountain's Apogee studio in Santa Monica), the intimate show on April 5 featured the L.A.-based band's new album, Here, which will be released in May. Front man Alex Ebert, masquerading as his alter ego Edward Sharpe, along with his former muse Jade Castrinos, brought together a group of nine additional musicians/friends to accompany them on the joyful songs.

The set ranged from the first single, "Man on Fire," to the glory hallelujah-esque "Fiyawata," featuring Castrinos' throaty rich vocals, to an almost acoustic round of "All Wash Out" and a lovely layered song about a friend's daughter, "Mayla." Particularly outstanding among the band members was Aaron Arnz on piano as well as Mark Noseworthy and his cavalry coat on guitar and vocals. Their musicianship grounded the symphony of instruments and voices jangling along in the freewheeling approach to a set list. (For the record, they did stick to the set list, quite graciously for those recording the event.)

The band is somewhat trapped in the moment when other acts like the Low Anthem are displaying more sonic mastery over tone and technique, but what sets Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros apart from similar Appalachian-gone-hipster acts is the community. They sing and play to each other and the audience, clearly because they just freaking love to do it. This makes for slightly less original work, but an absolutely unique sense of engagement with their art.

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After touring for the past three years, the band recently retired to Ojai to record the new album. They have so many songs left over that they are planning a followup. The new album has a similar jangling serenity to Up from Below, with more of a call to rise up and testify about love of all kinds.

I spent a lot of time upon the release of their debut trying to figure out who the band reminded me of, and I still waiver between Cat Stevens, The Waterboys and mid-career/pre-"Heartlight" Neil Diamond. Mostly, they just exude a 1970s peace, love and understanding vibe, which translates well to live performances, although the small space felt just a bit stifling for all their enthusiasm. But the band truly has an uncanny ability to generate a sense of warmth and community. I imagine seeing them during last year's Railroad Revival Tour was an even more transcendent experience than the compression of all of that good natured energy into a recording studio filled with fans.

The entire set will air on KCRW on May 29th to accompany the album's release along with DJ Liza Richardson's interview with Alex Ebert. Seated on the floor, the audience, uncomfortable but rapt, listened as Ebert, and occasionally Catrinos, talked shop. In the meantime, check out some of the other acts who have played for the Berkley Street Sessions on the website.

And if you can't wait until the end of May, the band is also playing the Greek Theatre May 4.