Report: Devendra Banhart Live in Philly

 

Indiedom’s nü-Bard makes the most of
trying circumstances at Philadelphia’s
Theatre Of Living Arts, Nov. 24, 2009.

 

BY ZACHARY HERRMANN

 

 

From the second
the concert was announced, something about Devendra Banhart playing the
Electric Factory just didn’t seem right. Whether or not he could bring out
enough of an audience to fill the notoriously awful Philadelphia
venue was one worry, especially when many of his free spirit demographic would
be across town seeing Phish at the Wachovia
Center.

 

But the bigger
issue would have been one of sound and scope. Banhart – despite having a real kicking
live band, dubbed the Grogs – started his days as a solo acoustic act and still
devotes a great deal of his set to those songs. The cavernous design of the
Electric Factory doesn’t really cater much to intimacy, and frankly, the result
probably would have been somewhat disastrous.

 

As luck would
have it, a water main break forced a last second venue change to the much
smaller, better-suited Theatre of Living Arts (TLA). In concert, as on album,
Banhart requires some patience and sifting through, especially of late. Not
surprisingly, his live show is very much a reflection of that. You have to get
past some lightweight hippie-dippiness, but when you do, the guy has some real
gems in his catalog.

 

In this sense,
Banhart’s music is a pretty accurate reflection of the musical era he most
channels: the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His stage persona is loose and spacey,
which belies his more complex, darker sensibilities. Maybe it’s just a matter
of personal preference, but “Long Haired Child”, “Rats” and “A Sight To Behold”
have a lot more going on lyrically and musically then his lighter fare.

 

Critical
consensus has been sort of lukewarm on Banhart’s latest, What Will Be, and not completely without reason. The album tracks
“Baby” and “Angelika” slowed things down early after the opening buzz of “Long
Haired Child”. “First Song for B” put even the most zealous Banhart followers
into a lull.

 

Banhart
certainly didn’t help his case by taking the album’s best pure pop song, “16th & Valencia
and Roxy Music”, and grinding it to a barely mid-tempo halt. Similar to the way
Ryan Adams started playing a slow-build version of “New York, New York”,
Banhart’s shift sapped the number’s potential as an early-set crowd pleaser.

 

Eventually,
Banhart acquiesced to a lot of what the cat-calls were crying for – “Little
Yellow Spider”, “Seahorse” (silly, but well jammed) and several others that
were in highly audible demand. Oddly enough though, Banhart and the Grogs had
some of their best moments playing the non-Banhart tunes, which carried the
band into the late set highs (“Lover”, “Carmensita”).

 

In addition to
all being extremely versatile musicians, the four members of the Grogs are all
fairly talented songwriters in their own right. Noah Georgeson’s “Find Shelter”
fit naturally into Banhart’s set, while drummer Greg Rogove’s “Diamond”
displayed a dirtier, thrashing blues buried under the group’s
Tropicalia/neo-psychedelia. Ever the gracious band leader, Banhart stepped back
to handle bass duties at one point, encouraging his band members to step up and
take the spotlight.

 

As much as the
group gives up a clear communal hippie vibe, the Grogs are an incredibly tight
and disciplined band. And Banhart – who came on in a bowtie and jacket and left
the night shirtless – may not look the part, but he is every bit the serious
musician. His guitar work – acoustic and electric – is both clever and
tasteful, referential (Nick Drake and The Electric Prunes both come to mind)
but independently wrought. 

 

With or without
the Grogs, Banhart got the best out of the sound at the TLA, the crowd mostly
hushed in the quieter moments, even when everyone had cause to get a little
restless. “16 & Valencia
and Roxy Music” aside, the weaker moments had everything to do with the
material, not the performances.

 

A couple years
from now, it would be nice to see a few of those What Will Be numbers drop out of the set list rotation. But for
now, as long as the guy offers up 105 minutes of music, we can let a few
indulgences slide.

 

***

 

Set list:

 

1)     
Long
Haired Child

2)     
Baby

3)     
Shabop
Shalom

4)     
Angelika

5)     
16th & Valencia
and Roxy Music

6)     
Little
Yellow Spider

7)     
A
Sight To Behold

8)     
I
Remember

9)     
First
Song for B

10)   Charles C. Leary

11)  You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory
(Johnny Thunders cover)

12)  How’s About Tellin’ A Story

13)  Maria Lionza

14)  It’s Gonna Take Some Time To Get Alone
With You (The Pleased)

15)   Foolin’

16)  Find Shelter (Noah Georgeson)

17)  Seahorse

18)  (Rodrigo Aramante song)

19)  Lover

20)  Diamond (Greg Rogove)

21)  Carmensita

22)  Rats

23)  Chinese Children/ I Feel Just Like a
Child

 

 

 

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