Most shows in Los Angeles are pretty straight forward. You pay for your ticket. A few bands play. You go home. The Edward Sharpe Big Top was anything but straight forward. It was a spectacle like no other that brought a classic traveling circus concept to life in a modern context.
While I was walking up to LA’s Historic Park on Sunday evening, the moon hung low and glowed bright orange. Below that was a flashing, spinning ferris wheel just in front of a classic circus tent. Lining the main path of the event were smaller tents featuring food vendors selling ice cream, pad thai, dumplings, and tacos; and artists selling jewelry, clothing, and other keepsakes. This was anything but an ordinary LA show.
The first circus performer in the Big Top was the exciting acrobatic troupe Torque Method. Featuring classic circus acts in modern contexts, Torque Method opened the evening with a spark. One performer balanced on a stack of short tables on top of a pipe, while a contortionist bent his body into some of the most seemingly uncomfortable positions while balancing on a raised platform.
What is a circus without a sad clown? Aaron Embry, a former touring member of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, is now a solo artist who writes music that sounds like it was made in the old west. He came out in overalls, no shirt, and clown makeup. A clanky and dry piano rang out while Embry’s twangy vocals traded melodies with his shrill and lonesome harmonica. He has a real and simple style that commanded the audience.
Christopher Wonder was the Big Top’s emcee. He may also be the world’s worst magician in the most amazing way. The tattooed mystifier incorporated the perfect elements of physical comedy and being a clown into his act while catering to the LA audience’s needs.
He performed some classic magician tricks but with a twist. At one point, he pulled multiple handkerchiefs from his pocket, but tied to the end of them was a bottle of Stella, which he then proceeded to chug while throwing confetti into the air. One gag trick after another, he would show how he did the trick, drink a beer, and throw more confetti. Christopher Wonder was one of my favorite parts of the night.
The fun continued with unordinary circus performances when LA’s own Lucent Dossier took the stage. Acrobatics and sword swallowers are just a fraction of their dynamic performances. The sword swallower had a great sense of humor to accompany his talent. After swallowing three different shaped swords he explained how sword swallowing is basically the same thing over and over again, then casually remarked, “Whatever, you can’t do it!”
Lucent Dossier continued to impress with acrobatic displays, including a unique pole structure with a woman balancing, stretching, and posing in various positions all over it while two men held the beams at angles. Another man spun all over the the stage in a giant metal hoop.
The next performer was introduced as the genius who was in charge of all the marionettes in the film Team America. When Scott Land took the stage, all I could think about was how creepy and weird marionettes were, but Land’s charm and character was one of the most memorable parts of the night. A clown puppet who blew up a balloon and floated away with it, an opera singer performing a classic, a pair of dancing skeletons whose limb bones separate several feet from their bodies…Scott Land has a fun and unique style of puppet show that won over the audience in spades.
One surprise guest came on just before Edward Sharpe, comedian Reggie Watts, who performed his signature bizarre freestyle looping to create spontaneous songs. It was just as weird as it was amazing. Using a delay pedal, he looped himself beatboxing and put sounds on top of that to create elements of funk, hip hop, and psych rock, all while singing and rapping over the top of them. He then sang a 1950s style croon, hitting some intense low notes. Overall it was an unusual and impressive performance.
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes walked from the tent entrance through the crowd and onto the stage. One of the concepts behind performing in the round and in this type of environment was to get a more personal experience with the audience. They nailed it. From that first moment among the crowd, the event became more than an audience watching a band — the audience was part of the performance.
Edward Shapre opened with “Better Days,” which kicks off their latest self-titled album. People were singing along, the guitarist played a marching bass drum, everyone was dressed up…it really was a spectacle. After the opening song, Alex, their singer, asked the audience for their input. Through a haze of shouted requests, they continued their set at the audience’s whim. This seemed brave, but they pulled it off.
While the audience was singing along and clapping to just about every song, it seemed as though no one had more fun than the band members themselves. Each song came with head nods and non-verbal communication between band members, ending in laughs before changes in the song. You can’t really tell what they were saying, but you could tell they enjoyed the show as much as anyone else.
When Alex called up their female vocalist, Jade, to do a cover of Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No,” she gave him a look that I would see if I asked my vegetarian wife to cook me ribs. Though they pulled it off well, it seemed like Alex sprung that one on Jade last minute. Still, her vocals shined beside his.
The night began to wrap-up around midnight when Alex announced they had time for one more song. It wasn’t a surprise when they played their most famous track and breakout single “Home;” what did surprise everyone was the story section of the song.
The middle of the recorded song has a back and forth story between Alex and Jade about them falling in love. Rather than this, though, they turned the story section over to the crowd, walking up to individual people and asking for their input. People talked about how they “almost didn’t come” to the show, about what the band meant in their lives, and one person even told a joke…a bad one. It encapsulated what the event was really about, getting to experience music in a different and communal way. Everyone was a part of the show.
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes put their all into providing a full experience. Artists of all sorts contributed to what was a truly amazing event. You have to wonder if they will do it again. I couldn’t imagine the amount of work that went into making this show happen, but it was more than worth it. The Edward Sharpe Big Top was a personal and intimate event that brought out the true nature of one of the most interesting bands out there.
For more info: