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Devendra Banhart

(24 Nov 2004: The Vanguard — Sydney)

Devendra Banhart

1. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
2. Iron & Wine
3. Devendra Banhart.

Ahh, Indie-Folk: a land where natural fibers and facial hair reign supreme.

Like the other artists on this list, Devendra Banhart is a man with an impressive beard, a beard that ensures his recognition as a seriously bohemian artist. Luckily, his aesthetic doesn’t get in the way of the music; beard and all, he remains one of the most unique voices to hit the stage in a very long time.

The Vanguard: the name of the venue says it all. In their deepest fantasies, most of the audience wished they were in 1940s New York, but a converted terrace in Sydney’s Newtown district would have to do.

The venue had scrubbed up well, providing an appropriately intimate setting for the show. Slightly fazed by the diners downstairs, we made our way to the upstairs gallery where people, treated to table service, munched tapas. My God! Table service at a gig? What is this abomination?

I quickly got over my very rock ‘n’ roll snobbery and settled down. I had to hear what all the fuss was about.

Having my life thrown into a state of existential turmoil earlier in the day meant that I missed the first act, Holly Throsby. From what I gather, this was very much my misfortune, as the response to my highly sophisticated interview technique—“So how was Holly Throsby?”—was overwhelmingly positive.

Banhart has one of the best back-stories in the business. He’s a homeless Frisco troubadour who, having amassed a wealth of bitingly witty tunes, began recording them on the fly into some cheap-ass home equipment. Kind of like Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston, but without so much psychosis—though there is some.

Thankfully the most interesting things about Banhart are not the amusing/life-affirming stories of how he came to be. The man and his music more than stand on their own. Banhart possesses one of the most unique voices I’ve heard, drawing each note held for longer than a second into a trembling wall of vibrato. Very few singers use their voices so like an instrument. I heard someone behind me compare his vocal style to Frank Sinatra! With all that vibrato, I might have said Jello Biafra, but that’s just me.

The show started with Devendra picking away at his guitar, trailing off mid-way through the first phrase, blaming the sound people for the interruption. He quickly apologized, and rightly so. They had layered the mics with enough echo to give the performance a sense of space and majesty, one that might easily have been absent in a venue as intimate as the Vanguard.

After a few solo tunes Banhart introduced us to his “band”: two more guys with beards and guitars. One of these men turned out to be Vetiver band-mate Andy Cabic. The extra guitars leant the rest of the show a beefier sound, with closely intertwined and sometimes breathtaking guitar work underpinning Banhart’s unique vocals.

The voice! So much of the appeal of this music, at least for me, is the way Banhart manipulates his voice to produce frequently startling impressions. He rolls his tongue over willfully obtuse lyrics (“Hey there Mr. Happy Squid/ You move so psych-a-del-i-cal-leeeee”), ensuring that humor is never far from pathos. Anything but precious with his music, he is willing to make impromptu changes to highlight a joke (“we’ll have a glass of wine/ and another/ and anotherandanotherandanotherandanother”), or perhaps just stop playing mid-outro and proclaim “The song kinda ends there.”

No stone was left unturned, although there was a noticeable, but understandable, emphasis on material from his most recent album, Nino Rojo. “We All Know” was one of those songs that did not previously strike me with any great force, but seeing it performed live gave me an entirely new appreciation.

Throughout the night Banhart called for requests, which produced a one chord bash at the oft-covered “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” and threats to perform subsequent covers, “in the style of Chicago.” Thankfully he didn’t carry through on these threats. Not for longer than a phrase or two, anyway.

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