Bounding on stage at Shepherds Bush Empire, girl-hipped and beard-faced, Devendra Banhart assessed a crowd made up of copy-cat males (long hair and moustaches gleaming), flower-adorned teenage girls, and a rather large chunk of what I can only describe as ‘hip’ London.
If he and his band (which included guitarists from Little Joy and the drummer from Priestbird) had been a little more with it, they would have sensed the problem that having this ‘hip’ crowd around would bring. As it was, they were gloriously and decidedly not with it. But remarkably they were pitch and note perfect all night.
The ‘hipsters’ were a problem because they had only heard, and were only there because of, the new album, the earner of some glittering reviews that had rendered Banhart ‘cool’. Hence, when the slower acoustic numbers of the previous four albums were played by a huddled cross-legged Banhart (the glorious ‘Now that I Know’ among them), he was completely drowned out by said hipsters having a nice chat. He was apparently oblivious and did nothing to quiet or distract them. Fortunately, despite this, for those there not to increase their street cred it was an assured and enjoyable acoustic performance, if interrupted by posh girls shouting “OH MY GOD” at some inaubible gossip.
Undeterred, Banhart shifted gear and gave us a mid section of the love child of a swing band and a Mexican Mariachi band. Five-part harmonies came out to play, as did some choice screaming, and Banhart waved his arms and danced his way into a nice little frenzy, ‘Shabob Shalom’ from the album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon being the main culprit. The hipsters still chatted away, waiting for one they knew, but they were drowned out, thankfully.
And still they waited, for Banhart had yet another gear to go through before he fed them their song. On the back of a track written by the drummer, Banhart decided that, actually, he quite wanted to be Jimmi Hendrix and that very hard, very dirty blues rock and roll was a bit of a favourite. Guitar solos and head banging ensued. The hippies were nearly physically sick. The flowers in their hair wilting.
But finally, the checked shirts got what they wanted. To the opening beats of “16th & Valencia Roxy Music”, hoards of designer labels poured down the stairs into the pit. They jangled around. Then they went back to their Merlot.
By this time, of course, we had sort of worked out Banhart was perhaps more knowing about his audience than he let on. For he came out for the encore and uttered one of his more obscure tracks, Chinese Children, followed by a six-minute stomp through “I Feel Just Like A Child”.
And child-like it was. Impish even. Taunting of his new-found coolness. Most of all, it was a lot of fun and incredibly impressive musically.
Banhart may seem like a shambolic mess, but he is a live experience to be savoured. Just try and not stand near the hipsters. Or if that’s impossible, take a gun.
Words: Jon Severs