mon 04/03/2024

Devendra Banhart, Barbican Centre | reviews, news & interviews

Devendra Banhart, Barbican Centre

Devendra Banhart, Barbican Centre

Venezuela's exotic folkie plays it (almost) straight

Banhart: Less hipster, more hip

Last night the “freaky” Devendra Banhart didn’t make an appearance. No songs were performed cross-legged, nor were there any wig-outs. For the majority of the evening the 32-year-old American-Venezuelan hippy was, by his standards, practically understated. In keeping with his new album, Mala, he chose to emphasise songwriting over personality. For those of us who were beginning to lose faith in him, it all came as something of a relief.

At the beginning of Banhart’s psychedelic-folk career, the tall singer’s exotic approach led many to consider him a wunderkind. His imagination was wild and his South American influences made him seem almost literary. Soon, however, his trembling voice became caricatured. By the time  “At the Hop” was used to promote a well-known brand of cheese, Banhart had started to seem more derivative than bookish.The hipsters who had discovered him stopped taking him seriously.

He may have eschewed his freakiness but there was, for a while, a degree of silliness

But Banhart is back on form. Mala is probably the best album he has recorded and he knows it. Last night his renewed self-confidence showed in his choice of warm-up act: the superb Rodrigo Amarante (who also happened to be part of Banhart's band). Amarante, a quiet, bearded Brazilian, took to the stage unassumingly and proceeded to stun with a sophisticated blend of Latin fusion. Somehow his voice drew you into the storylines, even though he was mainly singing in Portuguese. When Amarante finished his set, moving from acoustic to electric guitar and now singing in English, he sounded like a mix of Leonard Cohen, Seu Jorge, and Serge Gainsbourg. His was a tough act to follow.

Wearing a yellow T-shirt and jaunty hat, Devendra Banhart walked onstage to enthusiastic applause. The opening songs, “Golden Girls” and “Für Hildegard von Bingen”, showed him at his very best. There was nothing silly or affected, just powerful melodies resting on brooding arrangements. This high quality continued for more than half of the set. In the first hour the only niggle was from the sound levels - from “Baby” to “Mi Nigrita” his voice was either mixed too low or high.

It was a real shame that Banhart didn’t keep things thus. He may have eschewed his freakiness but there was, for a while, a degree of silliness.  “Little Boys”, with its camp dancing and over-exaggerated vocals, was a disappointment, and “Lover” didn't fare much better. The slump lasted for about four songs. But when the band left the stage and Banhart launched into “Won’t You Come Over”, the reason for the crowd’s devotion suddenly became apparent again. On both this song and his classic “Little Yellow Spider”, there was something quite magical and almost fairytale-like about this strange, gangly man.

Banhart concluded proceedings with the glorious and assured samba of “Carmensita”. While it played I couldn't help thinking of something he had said earlier. Banhart had explained that he often put on theatrical accents when he was feeling nervous. It seemed odd, given how confident he'd been at the beginning and end of the gig, that he'd also felt the urge to go OTT in the middle.

Watch Banhart's video for "Für Hildegard von Bingen"

There was something quite magical and almost fairytale-like about this strange, gangly man


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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