This post has been updated. See below for details.
Performing in the round within a candy-striped main tent, Sharpe -- aka singer Alex Ebert -- and band, on a slowly rotating stage, threw a party at the L.A. State Historic Park that felt as much like a religious revival as a circus. Arranged in a circle facing the singer and inside a surreal, beautifully lighted and acoustically excellent environment, the group exuded a vibe that was at times so willfully gleeful and friendly that knee-jerk cynicism seemed defeatist.
Few rock bands in 2013 are as polarizing as this one. Loathed by the Pitchfork posse for perceived inauthenticity and lambasted by others for the cloyingly catchy whistle-song "Home," the costumed band of guitarists, percussionists, horn players and vocalists trade in sing-along affirmations set to Americana-tinged rock. Grumpy music snobs -- including this writer, on many days -- prefer darkness and nuance to optimism and universality. This band does not.
The evidence was in plain view: "Life is Hard," for example, featured the charismatic Jade Castrinos singing inspirational rhymes shipped straight from Hallmark: "Celebrate it in the sun/Promenade it with everyone/Elevate it in a song/And I'll be there to play it, don't get me wrong."
Their airy lyrics aside, it's tempting to dismiss Sharpe and band because they fit into a certain L.A. narrative that outsiders tend to loathe. Composed of talented multi-instrumentalists -- 13 by my count on this night -- they've been accused by critics of the crime of artifice. Ebert was previously best known for singing in an L.A. electro-punk band, and now he occasionally lapses into an affected Southern twang onstage. The Magnetic Zeros' outfits (quasi steampunk, with top hats, high-waisted trousers, vintage masks, troubadour caps) only add more fuel to the fire.
Ebert's messianic persona is a particularly impressive mask. Wearing a billowy white shirt, his hair in a tussled, loose bun, he reveled in being the center of the show, and spread the joy of music during the set through up-close interactions with his fans. The light in one girl's eyes as Ebert grasped her hand illuminated this devotion. (I'm pretty sure someone compared him to the Buddha during an audience participation moment.)
"We belong to the fire/We belong to the air/We belong where there is love," sang the equally magnetic Castrinos in "Remember to Remember," attempting to pour emotional truth into another empty-vessel lyric.
But as evidenced by the band's fantastic version of Nina Simone's "Ain't Got No," the authenticity thing is a red herring. If you focused on the Magnetic Zeros, what arrived was a defiantly joyful -- and musically deep -- set, capping a thoroughly entertaining show. At their best, they sounded like the Band on steroids, a group beefed up with double percussion, keyboards and big horns.
A versatile, huge-sounding collective, the Magnetic Zeros' membership has remained consistent throughout its life, and you can tell. Musically they are an unarguably fantastic band capable of jamming on soul, rock, blues, psychedelia and groove-rock. There's no faking this music.
Artifice was celebrated elsewhere, though. The Big Top Festival itself, which began Thursday and concludes Sunday, had as its inspiration the theme of a vintage small-scale circus, circa the early 20th century, with two big tents, one featuring performance, the other featuring branded moonshine and a full bar.
Unlike most music festivals, which offer as many musicians as can be crammed into an allotted time frame, the Big Top celebrated many nonmusical performers as well. In addition to a solid set by singer and songwriter Henry Wolfe, a short, raw turn by Rocco DeLuca and a few other musical acts, entertainment was well-conceived.
Marionettes directed by noted puppeteer Scott Land (responsible for work in the film
It really did feel like an old circus, and was a nice change from the frenzy of most festivals. Wandering the grounds outside the main ring with a full moon overhead as a Ferris wheel circled and a DJ spun jams by Arthur Russell and Os Mutantes confirmed that Ebert and the Magnetic Zeros had pulled off their biggest, most successful masquerade yet.
Updated, 4:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misattributed a vocal by Jade Castrinos to Alex Ebert in the song "Life Is Hard.' Also, the review stated that Castrinos "got her start as a would-be teen pop singer." According to management, she got her start more specifically "singing blues and Beatles covers in her father's band."