There’s been a lot of grousing in recent years about South By Southwest: namely, that’s it’s lost its luster as a proving ground for emerging artists and has become more of a launching pad for new projects by proven bands. If that’s the case, then no veterans in recent memory have kept the old vibe alive while subscribing to the new paradigm like the folksy festival favorites Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whom, in a headlining slot on a reverent showcase a the Central Presbyterian Church in Austin on Thursday night, debuted their new, still-untitled album, front-to-back, sight unseen, to a jammed crowd who ate up every piano plunk and acoustic strum — as well they should have.
Playing a full set of new songs is, of course, not a totally original idea — just a couple of years ago, Phish, with whom Edward Sharpe shares a penchant for experimentation, if a different aural palate, did just that at a Halloween show. But to do it at South By, where there are literally thousands of options both more-and-less recognizable right outside the door, is a risk that deserves to be lauded at least as much as the collection of hypnotic, lush songs the band delivered.
Although he was written off by some as a neo-hippie cartoon character when his band, best known for the singalong-y “Home,” emerged six years ago, frontman Alex Ebert has grown into both his persona and his voice, which reached peaks from the beginning of the first song, “Everyday,” a slow-burner with a dynamic ending that brought audience members to their feet, where they remained through the set (song titles were pulled from the setlist that was onstage). “Lullaby” continued the set with a slow intro that became a gang-sung refrain backed by simple piano instrumentation, with hard-stop dynamics and airy, expressive, pensive vocals.
The highlight of the set was the mid-album song “Bunununu,” an oddly funky, odd-timed shouter with an Ennio Morricone coda: all trumpet lines and piano hits, over a dreamy, desert soundscape. Ebert made his piano debut on “Uncomfortable,” a cacophonous-by-choice droner moved along by rolling, lulling drums. “Perfect Time” found the band in nearly Brill building territory, exploring 40s-ish melodies as Ebert brought an audience member onstage to swing dance and sing, imploring him to follow the lyrics even as he got lost in the song’s rhythm.
Over the last few years, the Magnetic Zeros have found a singular voice, although they’ve also lost members who provided the female counterpoint that drove their dynamic in the first place. This new album seems to have found a way to figuratively replace them with something resembling an air of feminine mystique, albeit one that hangs out in the desert air, lushly blowing acoustic teases in your ear. The experiment of dropping these songs live worked, singularly: now, it’s just a matter of seeing if they translate in the studio as well.