Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Hooves, and Gospel Claws Last Night At McDowell Mountain Music Fest

Day 3, McDowell Mountain Music Fest
Compound Grill
Sunday, May 1, 2011

Last night, I stood at The Compound Grill bar watching the president deliver a speech about the death of Osama Bin Laden, as the sounds of Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros wafted in from the open doors.

The band was nearing the finish of their erratic and occasionally phenomenal set as President Obama praised 10 years of hard work of the U.S. counterintelligence agencies and recalled what many would argue was the last time our nation felt truly unified, the tragic days following the September 11 attacks.

Moments earlier, Edward Sharpe frontman Alex Ebert delivered one of his many rambling, nonsensical rants of the evening, about how Osama Bin Laden had been dead for 15 years, and how he would volunteer to as the new "person for us all to hate." As the band segued into "Desert Song," I found myself lost in thoughts, then headed in to check the CNN broadcasts inside.  

Some nights are weird, but the thing is, it didn't start out so strange. You really couldn't ask for more out of the McDowell Mountain Music Fest. The parking lot was covered in comfortable turf, well trod by hippies and hipsters alike -- and it's getting increasingly difficult to tell them apart, I might add, with all the flowing dresses, big hats, and designer moccasins on display. The sound was great, all the cash was going to a great cause, and you could head into the Compound Grill for a cold Blue Moon and a spell at the bar.

Not that anyone would need to escape the weather. It was a beautiful day, with a gorgeous breeze sweeping across the makeshift fairground. That said, you did need to venture in to catch the first act on the Creamy Radio Stage, Hooves.

Hooves are without a doubt one of the best rock 'n' roll bands in Phoenix, and their set at The Compound Grill did nothing but add to their reputation. Hooves play sweaty, greasy rock music, so it was a little disconcerting watching patrons politely munch salads to tunes like "Lake in Sky," which comes off like Lux Interior fronting The Band.

Through no one particular's screw-up, Hooves ended up playing the same time as main-stage act Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, so I did some shuffling between the bar and outside on the lawn.

Fresh off a breakout set at Coachella, the Austin band's R&B/soul/blues jams seemed to really do it for the crowd. The festival typically draws crowds across the spectrum of jam-band loving hippies and more indie-minded listeners, but Lewis didn't go out of his way trying to appeal to either and wound up capturing the attention of both with his soulful bark and fancy guitar work.

One particularly inebriated gentleman explained to me that "Black Joe Lewis is the best music to come to Phoenix to date," and called out repeatedly for the band's funniest and funkiest tune, "Bitch, I Love You." The band eventually obliged the guy, though he continually shouted the song title even as the band steered their hour and a half set through most of their tunes, covering their both of their stellar albums, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! and Scandalous.

Back on the Creamy Radio Stage, Phoenix-based Gospel Claws put on a typically good set. Stumbling around the stage, the group brought out a newer tune, "I Can, I Will," differing some from the recorded version and possessing a rougher, Bo Diddley-style edge. The Claws never seem to get boring to watch. I've heard their songs enough times to know all the lyrics, but the band's ramshackle energy always feels fresh.

I wasn't terribly familiar with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, who played Tempe just last week, and I even made the faux pas of referring to singer Alex Ebert as "Edward" to one of the volunteers, who explained to me that "Edward Sharpe" is the name of a messianic comic book character created by Ebert.

Ebert certainly seems into creating mythologies. Dressed like a hobo, he and the band exuded a classically mysterious vibe, looking as much like a wandering of tribe of miscreants as an indie-pop band. Ebert's persona makes him a natural frontman, and he commanded his 10-piece band with a strange, blissful cool.

At least he did at first. I'm not sure if it was their extended time on the road, but as the show wore on, the band seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Things seemed to be heading down a dark road when singer/guitarist Jade Castrinos, essential for her role in the band's biggest single, "Home," stormed off the stage. Castrinos locked herself in the dressing room and refused to join the band onstage.

The band soldiered on. And why not, there were still nine people up there. Songs like "40 Day Dream" and "Carries On" found the band in top form, drawing on Exile on Mainstreet low-gospel and Ebert's dazed, Ziggy Stardust like charm. Things got progressively stranger, though. As if trying to fill time, the length between songs got to be outrageous, with Ebert seemingly more content to tell off color jokes about nuns than actually play any music.

The crowd wanted "Home," though, and after cheers of "Jade! Jade! Jade!" failed to bring the vocalist on stage, Ebert drafted a few girls from the audience to do her parts. It was hilarious and wonderful to watch the girls, who were so clearly losing their collective shit, sing and dance with Ebert. He descended into the crowd to gather "stories" from folks smooshed against the barricade, and it was more of the same; Ebert's command on his fans is really something. They even seem to be with him as he strolls around the stage aimlessly, killing time between songs.

I wandered back into the bar to catch up on the news. The music of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros just didn't seem appropriate for me, too out there, too celebratory, too cloying. Any other night I think I would have been into it. The band has everything a good self-important rock band needs: screaming fans, endless confidence and bravado. But it wasn't working for me at the moment.

I came out to the lawn and found the band doing a tender, acoustic-gospel sing along to the dwindling crowd, who Ebert had implored to sit in front of the stage. "It will all wash out in the rain," he sang, the crowd echoing his words.

Maybe, I thought, as I walked to my car, got in and listened to the news. I couldn't help but think the line was just another beautiful bit of make believe. 

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night:
Day Three of the McDowell Mountain Music Fest

The Crowd: Hippies, hipsters, and kids. No, many kids. By the way, the hula-hooping fad is way cuter when little kids are doing it.

Personal Bias: I'm decently acquainted with members of the Gospel Claws and Hooves crews.

Random Notebook Dump: That commercial (on one of the Compound's TV screens) reminds me I need to catch up on Justified on Hulu. In case you aren't aware, it's one of the best shows on television. 

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.