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Story and photos by Matt SchwenkeHeralded as the "real thing," Devendra Banhart and his name-changing band of talented musicians came to the Pabst Theatre under heavy expectations for compelling art, and after two and a half hours of music, which pulled from each member's catalog, they provided just that. It wasn't through grandiose gestures or pretentious musings, however, that Banhart delivered his unique folk music as art, but rather the exact opposite-- Banhart traded in any exaggerated importance for a role as musician that brought him down from the music world's highest heights to the beer-soaked floor in front of the stage.
Born in Texas, Banhart was raised in Venezuela before moving to San Francisco, where he dropped out of the San Francisco Art Institute and became a street musician, and hence his music incorporates Latin and American influences alike. While his guitar playing and voice are certainly worthy of all the recent acclaim, it was Banhart's ability as entertainer or purveyor of art that was most surprising. Playfully engaging the crowd, Banhart delivered random bits of prose, hopped into the crowd to give a birthday girl a hug, asked the crowd for new band names (after trying on Hairy Fairy and Deep Fried Hummingbird, the band is currently called Spiritual Bonerz (with the 'z' being silent), played a requested tune ("Chinese Children") that they had never played live nor rehearsed, pulled a fan up on stage to play his own half-written tune (with Banhart and his drummer backing the surprised fan), and, to end the show, invited anyone up on stage to dance to "I Feel Just Like A Child," which the crowd happily obliged and filled the stage.
Playing slower, down-tempo folk or snappy, psychadelic rock, Banhart's voice is consistently a marvel, and his sound is a modern mix of all things vintage. Whether stirring up the gentle vocal warble of a Tim Buckley in the misty "Freely" or channeling the spirit of Jim Morrison, by voice and demeanor, in "Tonada Yanomininista" and "Seahorse," enough eccentricities still remain to make the music distinctly Banhart's. The set pulled much from the soon-to-be-released Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, including the feverishly danceable "Lover." At times quirky, though simultaneously singing in four-part harmony or delivering some other challenging bit of musical craft, Banhart and company were strangely engaging and charming over the course of the show. While two and a half hours of music without a break will challenge the attention span of most listeners, Banhart creates a sound and live performance that makes it hard to turn away from until the very last note.
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