Last Night: Devendra Banhart at the Independent
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Better than: Paying nearly $300 to bake in the Southern California sun with thousands of other music fans.
It feels like there's a defacto music festival in the Bay Area right now as a number of acclaimed and underground bands perform warm up shows for Coachella (which goes off this weekend). Between last week and next, San Franciscans can see acts ranging from Leonard Cohen, Mastodon, and Franz Ferdinand to Band of Horses, Mexican Institute of Sound, and Atmosphere --among many others-- as they work their way through California for the giant music fest in the sun. Regardless of whether you have three big bills to drop to see these groups perform together, the Coachella Warm Up Tours blanket the city with enough top-tier talent there's really little reason to leave the Bay.
Case in point: Last night's Devendra Banhart show at the Independent was a wonderfully loose affair you likely couldn't recapture in Indio. For one thing, the fresh air at Coachella would probably remove the contact high factor. One thing's for sure: with Devendra fans in the house, there's no need for a smoke machine. But that all just adds to the loopy vibe he projects in his music.
For all his celebrity romances, gender-bending press shots, and art exhibitions at SF MOMA, when you see Devendra Banhart perform live, he's a pretty goofy entertainer. Last night when he took the stage with his band, he spoke to the crowd like we were all just crammed into his practice studio. He'd squat down to talk to a fan in the middle of the set, tell another excited audience member to wait just a minute for the song they requested, excuse his scattered behavior on account of being a little high, and ask the room if we were all going to see Fleet Foxes on Wednesday (tonight) because that's where he was gonna be.
To say the vibe coming from the stage was casual would be an understatement. But Banhart seemed to be purposely keeping the reigns slack. He announced that this show was the first live run for a number of new songs (that he was working out before playing Coachella on Sunday, one imagines). The fresh material comes from his upcoming record--title TBA, as he said the name he supposedly chose, "Hi Mom," had already been taken by a techno band from Europe ("Ravers got me again," he joked).
For his upcoming release, Banhart is going into both new and familiar territory. One long jam included some sweet, Sabbathy riffs at the end, while another was a lite reggae ditty about "fearin'" versus "trustin.'" And he wouldn't be Devendra without some cute mash note tunes in there too. Banhart opened with a song he said was called "Chin Chin and Muck Muck" (a silly "Weird Al version of a confessional" about a saggy old hag), another one called "Three Ball Paul Can't Help But Smile" and third titled "Angelica" (or was it "Angelina"?) that had lyrics in Spanish and English. Whatever the woman's name, the song was excellent, as was his very endearing love song, 'Baby," about a woman who made Banhart laugh (sample lyrics: "Holy moly, you're so funny, you crack me up...."Never heard a better bad joke said out loud)."
Banhart also rewarded the faithful (of which there were many--men and women squealing and yelling things like "I came all the way from Austin to see you!", "I love this show!", and from one guy in the back, "I want to fuck you Devendra!") with older songs, like the epic, Doors-ian "Seahorse," a personal favorite of mine. "Hey Mama Wolf had the room enthusiastically howling like a pack of wild dogs.
The freshly-shaven frontman also gave his guitarist the spotlight for a song. Rodrigo Amarante performs in a couple other acts, including the excellent Little Joy (which sounds like a mix between Banhart and the Strokes). Last night Rodrigo busted out "Keep Me In Mind," one of the best songs off his trio's debut release.
By the end of the night, the old, new, and side project material blended seamlessly, and Banhart managed to make a medium-sized club feel cozy thanks to the enthusiasm he gave to the crowd. (Although it seems he could've sang the sountrack to Sesame Street and reaped wild applause, people were so eager to clap and howl for him). Even with the occasional rough patches in the new stuff, it was an evening to remember--as long as his admirers can keep their short term memory intact after so much time spent in a very San Francisco cloud forest.
By the way: Devendra Banhart added a second Coachella warm up show in town this week. He has another performance tomorrow night (Thursday) at Yoshi's.
Critical bias: Despite finding his early material too precious, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon sold me on Banhart fandom. I love that record, and every performance I've seen of his since it came out has been very entertaining.