Our Story Begins on a Monday Night, with Devendra Banhart

[Banner photo courtesy of Devendra Banhart’s Facebook page]

Forgive me if my thoughts this week are somewhat more guided by sentiment and emotion. I think I’ve used the word “overwhelmed” more times this month than any other. I’ve been having trouble grappling with the abstract, big-picture goings-on of the world while trying to focus on the day-to-day work that I have to in order to be a coherent, functioning member of society. One of the ways I’ve been successful in softening this balance is through music. Whether I’m listening to it or creating it or just thinking about it, music helps me both appreciate the sincerity and profoundness of all the great and ugly injustices happening beyond my control, as well as move forward with this understanding in a more complex, cautious way that offers more creativity and expression.

So I hadn’t been to a good show in a while. There were a couple mildly appealing house shows, and I kept myself sane through NPR Tiny Desk and KEXP live videos, but last Monday night, I was refreshed, revived, and revitalized with an act I’d been waiting quite a long time to see.

Devendra Banhart, a Venezuelan American artist born in Texas and raised in Venezuela and California, is most commonly characterized as a musician of the alternative or “psychedelic folk” genre, which I believe is quite an apt description. There’s a certain edge to his music that the simple label of “alt folk” doesn’t quite cover. He played the Showbox on 1st Ave. on Monday, January 30, in support of his most recent album, Ape in Pink Marble, which was released in September of last year.


Photo courtesy of Devendra Banhart’s Facebook page

It was a bit of a surprise as to who would do the honor of opening, since there was no information on the ticket or the Showbox’s website. It turns out that two members of Devendra’s own touring band started off the night, sharing their own solo work. The first was an acoustic set, his first solo performance in public; the second being an eclectic, soft, avant-garde recording, setting the scene for Devendra’s combination of the two.

As I prepared to write this article, I told myself I would limit the amount of times I mentioned the words “sweet,” “baby,” and “cute,” as I often overdo it, and, you know, objectifying artists isn’t cool. That being said, Devendra Banhart takes “sweet-baby-cute” to the next level, in that he embodies a kind of sweetness that inevitably makes anyone listening scrunch up their shoulders and squint their eyes, immediately drawing up sensations of past crushes and small animals and your mother’s cooking and warm Atlantic Ocean beaches. I’m not making this stuff up; the way the crowd was reacting was increasingly reacting as if Devendra’s voice was literally intoxicating.

He played quite a few songs off of the new album—the charming story of “Fancy Man,” characteristic of many of his gentle ballads, as well as the heartbreaking “Saturday Night,” in which his voice gently wavers again and again through the line, “Please don’t love me because you’re through hating you.”

But where he really seemed to enjoy himself was with some of his older tunes, each met with cries of happy recognition from the crowd. At one point, the rest of his band left the stage and he took a seat at the front. Almost face to face with the front row, he smiled into the masses and asked what songs they would like to hear. He listened carefully as eager fans yelled out the names of the particular Devendra tune that had meaning for them, and picked out a couple of the more obscure songs from past albums.

One that was greeted with an especially gracious series of squeals, including my own, was “Shabop Shalom.” The title might already be enough to understand how captivating this must have been to my former-early-high-school self, as well as the current audience. It begins with a spoken word intro—my soft spot—articulated by the drummer: “Our story begins on a Sunday afternoon, just between Halfway Tree and Spanish Town,” before breaking into a lulling waltz of sweet, high-pitched “na-na-na”s and “da-da-da”s.

Devendra’s voice is soft—he describes it as more of a “feminine sound”—and it can hardly be called commanding. It doesn’t really take precedence over the lilting acoustic guitars or shakers in most songs. It sounds as if he takes cues from his instrumentals in mimicking them with his voice. He has stunning control over very minimal vibrato, shaking his voice over held notes in a surprisingly steady and disciplined manner.

He also often sings of melancholy lyrics, disguised by the sweetness of the melody, or even by language. Many of his songs are sung in Spanish (he periodically conversed with the crowd in Spanish, as well, to much joy), as well as the favorite, “Mi Negrita.” The chorus, “Mi amor no tiene esperanza, aunque te esperera, Mi corazón se ancla, a un fantasma corporal,” translates to, “My love has no hope, although I will wait for you, my heart is anchored to a corporeal ghost.” It’s full of Latin influences and a catchy guitar refrain. The sway in the crowd was intoxicating, light, and unapologetically adorable. Just like Devendra.



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