With his below-shoulder-length black hair, long beard, eccentric fashion sense and mystic-hippy aura, Devendra Banhart has the trappings of anti-stardom. Yet a star is what he is, and for this much is forgiven. His charisma saw him through snoozy patches of a two-hour set on Thursday night, and made the occasional electric highlights worth the wait.
Banhart charmed the audience with funny names for his band – “We’re called Spiritual Boner with a ‘z’. As many ‘z’s as you want. A couple of days ago in Vermont, we were Mexican Segue. Before that, Celestial Pesto.” He called an audience member – “Dana from Ohio” – up on stage to perform one of her own songs, and joined in on drums. And eventually he shimmied around like an old-time rock star, shaking the maracas and slicing the air with his snake hips.
Before that, however, there was a 40-minute acoustic opening set, during which balding, middle-aged men shushed young girls who were chattering about Banhart’s Wikipedia entry. Although some lovely moments wafted out of the ether – “At the Hop,” “So Long Old Bean” – the overall effect was soporific. Banhart’s sense of melody is limited, so the songs mostly blended into an indistinguishable haze, not unlike the pot smoke that wafted over the crowd.
Things picked up with “Seahorse”, one of the best songs on Banhart’s new album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. At eight minutes, it’s a long, somewhat Zeppelin-esque tune that builds from gently strummed guitar through loping melodies to crunchy, hard blues riffs, with a catchy refrain (“I wanna be/A little seahorse”) that epitomises Banhart’s trademark blend of the deeply silly and the deeply serious. The band settled into a powerful groove, and began to loosen their ponytails; everybody jumped about.
When Banhart rocks out like that – as he did on other songs, including “Tonada Yanomaminista”, another new album highlight – he evokes the early-1970s west coast golden age. But this is 2007, so he also feels compelled to dabble in an array of genres, from reggae to 1950s R&B. His efforts at the former are limp, the latter goofy (although he did manage to make “Shabop Shalom”, a parody of “Book of Love” from the new album, sound witty rather than dumb). But goofiness is what saves this singer from pretentiousness, so we smiled and indulged him.