Devendra Banhart Gets Hella Good Reviews

When he began his performance Tuesday at the Roxy, Devendra Banhart sat, acoustic guitar in hand, plucking subdued singer-songwriter fare marked by a blissed-out delicacy. When he ended it nearly two hours later, he was stripped to the waist and practically spitting out his words as his band rolled and tumbled through the 12-bar blues pattern of “I Feel Just Like a Child.”

Devendra Banhart’s a wanderer. Childhood in Venezuela. College in San Fran. He hobo-ed throughout the States with a four-track tape recorder and somehow landed on the Brooklyn apartment floor of Michael Gira, the guy who would release his first album, 2002’s Oh Me Oh My…. Banhart just bought a house near Malibu after having lived in Venice and several beachfront spots since 2005.

Oh Me Oh My… was a solo set of softly sung aural postcards, short, raw and spiky. Though dotted with strings, Rejoicing in the Hands and Niño Rojo were equally thought-bubbly. Then he started fleshing out his psychedelic sound, first with 2005’s Cripple Crow, and now with SmokeyRollsDownThunderCanyon

But what could have been a split musical personality was anything but, as there was a clear progression from one extreme to the other that left few of the gaps in between unfilled.

It started with a run of low-key, extravagantly gentle songs like “Heard Somebody Say” and “Freely” that sounded like Banhart was on the verge of inventing soft rock, if only America, Seals and Crofts, and Bread hadn’t beaten him to the punch 35 years ago. He imbued them with an impassioned serenity more typical of tropicalia artists like Caetano Veloso, and neither his voice nor his six-piece, three-guitar band rose above a low murmur.

Slowly but steadily, however, the musicians began adding volume to the songs, until they reached a turning point in the reincarnation-theme “Seahorse.” The song began with a rippling ethereality before generating the evening’s first real tension as it grew louder and more skittish. Then, as the band briefly quieted down, a fuzz-tone electric riff tore through the club, leading into a fierce acid-blues coda that signified that the mellow portion of the performance was pretty much over.

From that point on, Banhart seemed looser, friskier, and more willing to indulge his inner rocker. There was more psychedelic garage rock (including the lockstep “Long Haired Child”), a string of songs infused with Latin fire, and a generous invitation for an audience member (Marielle, visiting from Milwaukee) to come up and sing her own material. Marc Hirsch/Boston Globe 9/27

Admire him or not, there’s no arguing that Devendra Banhart is the spark that ignited the current explosion in freak-folk, free-folk, acid-folk, alternative folk, whatever you want to call it. His fifth recording, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, de-emphasizes the folk for the free. As on 2005’s Cripple Crow, Banhart embraces a considerable stylistic breadth here, laying valid claim to everything he essays. A languid beat directly off Rio de Janeiro’s hot sands floats the heavenly harmonies of “Samba Vexillographica,” before giving way to Os Mutantes psychedelia and culminating in Martin Denny-esque exotica. Over the course of its eight minutes, the remarkable “Seahorse” opens as quiet blues-rock balladry before blooming into fifties cool jazz, then settling into a Doors outing, Banhart credibly mimicking Jim Morrison’s sneering vocal antics. “Saved” is a soulful gospel-esque number that opens with a church organ, perhaps as played by Korla Pandit, before the choir bursts forth with the message, “I was saved by the fire.” “The Other Woman” pulses as though it just flew in from the Carribean and is waiting for a dub version b-side, spooky manipulations echo through the mix. The disc closes with a trio of songs that are the most straightforward tracks here, “Freely” a Luna-esque piece of folk-pop, “I Remember” a sad-eyed piano ballad, and the chamber-folk of “My Dearest Friend.” The expected gang of friends drops by to lend a hand, including Noah Georgeson, Pete Newsom (Joanna’s brother), Otto Hauser, and Vetiver’s Andy Cabic. Its true that, as with any influential figure, Banhart is, directly and indirectly, responsible for a considerable amount of freak-folk drivel unleashed over the past five years. Still, when a man makes a record as good as this one, he can be forgiven much. (Michael Meade)/Skyscraper 07

Like his Hairy Fairy band, which renames itself whenever the whim hits, Devendra Banhart’s creative stream follows impetuous paths on his fifth album, “SmokeyRollsDownThunderCanyon” (XL). Equal parts ambitious CD, travelcade of styles and late-night party, the 16-track effort shows Banhart growing into fleshed-out arrangements of ballads, rockers, jazzy shuffle, nu-folk, oldies pop, reggae blues and a Latin showstopper, “Cristobal.” The CD isn’t as raw as the early lo-fi songs that the singer recorded on answering machines, instead showcasing newly accomplished sides of his endearing eccentricity. With lyrics rolled like surreal mantras, a gently peculiar voice and reference points that run from Cat Stevens to T. Rex to NickCave, Banhart’s bag of quirks make him a consistently beguiling songwriter. Banhart and band stop at the Roxy for an all-ages show. His new-age grunge friend Matteah Balm opens. Tristram Lozaw/Boston Globe 9/20

Devendra Banhart, freak-folk’s phantasmagorical godfather, has left his no-fi, four-track ways behind and made the leap to pleasing production values. But he remains a true eccentric.

Banhart recorded his fifth full-length disc in a secluded home studio in the hippie hideaway of Topanga Canyon, Calif., and as the album title’s thinly veiled references to rolling and smoking imply, let’s just say he inhaled.

This trippy collection spans BrazilianTropicalia, ’60s psychedelia, classic rock, blissed-out pop, gospel, and a new genre that might be called Hebrew doo-wop — a ridiculous range of styles, but one that works under Banhart’s expansive, expressive umbrella.– JOAN ANDERMAN /Boston Globe 10/7

Devendra Banhart, having slowly but surely abandoned the “freak” half of the “freak-folk” movement, may have found his true calling at the Roxy last Tuesday as a small-time professional entertainer. I had always assumed that the guy was some kind of hermit artiste, emerging from his beard only once a year to hand down the latest batch of crazed, digitized incantations – the elusive, legendary art-school dropout of the Catskills.

Instead, Banhart came to please. Dressed in a snug little vest, a colorful headscarf, and many silver rings, he played a set that mostly resembled an amiable variety show. Members of his band took the lead for two of their own songs, and he even invited an audience member on stage to perform a song she had written. (The young woman from Milwaukee had a lovely voice, and her adorable, vocalized “trumpet solo” is the sort of thing that happens when an angel gets its wings.)

A hefty chunk of Banhart’s new album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL), was received with enthusiasm if not rapture, though the band’s first forays into proper rock-and-roll volume levels on “Seahorse” were a great success .Richard Beck/Boston Phoenix 10/1

Banhart came first, at the Grand Ballroom on September 27th. His band appeared to be organized into loose hierarchy according to various hirsuited properties, Banhart himself having the longest hair and the woolliest beard, with each other musician sporting some combination. Banhart’s hippieness is in emulation of the pot-hazed escapism that flew into the Los Angeles hills with record company riches in the early ’70s, so much so that the Venezuelan-born songwriter even recorded his new album deep in LaurelCanyon.

Often, the songs from Banhart’s SmokeyRollsDownThunderCanyon emphasize, well, gettin’ high, stayin’ high, and being free. “If you get high, you might see me floating by,” he promised early in the set on “So Long Old Bean,” a shimmering Hawaiian fantasia. “There’s only one way to shine, and it’s trying to live freely,” he emphasized on “Freely.” On “Seahorse,” he combined the themes: “Well, I’m high, and I’m happy, and I’m free.”

In performance, the 26-year old played up the unity of the outfit, announcing various bandnames (Spiritual Boner, Celestial Pesto), had all six musicians singing, and played the neutrally folky songs of several members. When they came to “Seahorse” — on album, an eight-minute mini-epic with a “Take 5”-like groove that teases a jaaaaaam — they stuck entirely to the script, almost to the second. Later, the leader gave a speech about how everybody creates in his own way, as with food or paints, but the tools available this evening were only mere musical instruments, so did anybody have a recent song he or she wanted to come up and play? A girl named Dana scuttled up, donned Banhart’s guitar, and played a song — quite good, really, at least in the vocabulary of half-whispered folk, with one of the multi-instrumentalist beardos joining her on drums.Jesse Jarnow/ 10/10/07

The follow-up to 2006’s White Reggae Troll, Banhart returns for another album chocked full of trippy lyrics and Jim Morrison-esque vocals. The king of freak folk also enlists friends Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, Nick Valensi of the Strokes and even actor Gael Garcia Bernal to round out what just might be the best indie album of the year.

While Banhart is known for his limerick-style lyrics and ever-evolving guitar playing, Smokey Rolls proves that he has broadened his musical horizons. His latest release covers everything from bossa nova to tongue-in-cheek doo-wop, yet still stays close to his bohemian roots.

Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon was heavily influenced by Banhart’s bohemian haven in TopangaCanyon, near the Santa Monica mountains of California. In the past, other legends called Topanga home, including Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Joni Mitchell, Mick Fleetwood and members of The Doors.Devin Pratt/

Forget about trying to pigeonhole Devendra Banhart. On his latest, the ravor-averse eccentric delves into an array of genres, loosely tying them together with a unique brand of experimental folk. As a complete work, this ambitious disc may be disjointed, but it’s also a testament to Banhart’s talent that he is able to switch gears so adroitly, whether it’s the irresistible funk of “Lover” or the Doors-esque highlight “Tonada Yanomaminista.” Chris Strauss/People 11/5

For his fifth record (and second with a full band), the leading light and architect of the freak folk movement seems intent on shedding the folk, but retaining the freak. Banhart’s latest is an exercise in genre-hopping, whether it be the Caetano Veloso-aping bossa nova of “Samba Vexillographica,” the funk soul grooves of “Lover” or the dubbed-out space reggae of “The Other Woman.” He even makes up his own genres, case in point being the Jewish doo-wop novelty number “Shabop Shalom.” All of it is grounded by his highly stylized fluttering warble of a voice, a polarizing instrument that some swoon over and others can’t stomach. Banhart can be called many things . but boring is not one of them. Christopher Blagg/Boston Herald 9/28

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Author: James McQuiston

Ph.D. in Political Science, Kent State University. I have been the editor at NeuFutur / since I was 15. Looking for new staff members all the time; email me if you are interested. Thanks!

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