Devendra Banhart / The Dirty Three / The Akron Family - London Astoria - 16/11/05
01 Dec 2005
oddball, treble-billing. just before the g.a.y. club. needless to say, beards were seen, and very possibly stroked.
That Devendra Banhart is special is not in question. What is slightly elusive is what makes him better than anyone else. Sure, there's a certain exceptional quirk to it that doesn't exist commonly among usual folkies, but in essence it is just that, one man with a guitar singing customarily melodic songs. There definitely, however, is something that keeps him on the right side of the thin line between where this kind of thing gets boring and where it becomes beautiful. What on earth could it be?
Maybe it's beards. Everyone tonight has them, thin ones, bushy ones, from collections of bum fluff to mass congregations of thick, luxuriant chin hair. The Akron Family are the first to show us theirs. What makes them special is much easier to pinpoint than the question of Devendra's brilliance. It's a do-everything attitude which entails both massively psychedelic, elongated periods of noise which come across like what Merzbow would have opened with if he had played at Woodstock, and intermittent periods of delicately balanced, four-piece vocal harmonies. Despite its pioneering spirit, it's still very much a hippy affair - after one such period of clamour, they manage to get the few hundred early attendees in the room to join in a chorus of repeating the words 'love and space, love and space' for what we would have been happy to be forever. They overrun, to the annoyance of the staff, who for their final song turn on the lights set up for the subsequent Astoria club night. So, as the racket and dulcet tones soothe us, the lights spell out a giant, sparkling 'GAY' on the back of the stage.
It fits, and amuses both band and audience in a way that would have ruined the Dirty Three. Not that these guys aren't good for a giggle. 'This song is dedicated to the statistic that seven out of ten British women prefer the Dirty Three to Robbie Williams,' we're offered as a scene setter before one tune. It's heavily jazz-influenced rhythms and softly stroked guitar chords underlying the most bastardised, mean and meandering violin sound which takes the most prominent place. The songs are each of a similar theme and feel, differing mainly in their intensity and how they feel they should distribute the beauty to beast ratio therein. We're told each is about something, usually involving some sort of 'realisation' after a long and frankly nonsensical yarn has been spun, but the songs remain entirely instrumental and the listener has to figure out for themselves precisely which part of the tune relates to which event in the story. The facial hairs are smaller but thicker, and look like they could grate cheese. For Warren Ellis, they frame a face that sits atop a restless body, spitting and kicking his way through each track whilst he saws away at his battered violin strings. It's exhausting and exhilarating, both musically and visually.
Devendra Banhart is seemingly only friends with other people who have beards. You suspect that the guitarist with his backing group Hairy Fairy, the one with the least impressive chin-locks, has been commanded to begin the process of growing one just so he looks a little more like part of the family. Devendra himself plays the sandman, making use of the opening part of the lengthy, rapturously received set to bring the audience down to a level of contented sleepiness, before tucking us in, kissing us goodnight, gently soothing us back to a waking state and inviting us to a party where all the strangers present want to be your friend.
Drawn largely from the gloriously serene 'Cripple Crow', the set is paced masterfully, the delivery soft when required and fervently fun-filled when demanded also, shifting from the tranquil pacifism of 'Heard Somebody Say' through a delicate but nonetheless pounding lustre of 'Long Haired Child' on to the more celebratory feel of the likes of the encore encompassing hoe-down that is 'I Feel Just Like A Child', or the prior and thoroughly confusing tale of desiring to marry a young lad that is 'Little Boys', which Michael Jackson should surely cover. Songs about little people are everywhere, but there's something about Banhart which makes you think there's an innocence rather than an unhealthy peculiarity to the obsession. Hey, at least he wants to make honest little boys out of them, you conclude, bizarrely. He covers a song by mass-murdering, Nazi-sympathising pillar of evil and, come to think of it, Devendra look-alike, Charles Manson too, which for some reason doesn't seem at all out of place, or make you question your admiration of the guy one jot.
Kudos should be given to the chap who comes out from the audience to try his luck at a tune and did most admirably, but of course the real plaudits should be reserved for the man whose name adorns the ticket. Bearded singer songwriters have existed ever since a string was stretched out over a hollow piece of wood, and Devendra is not the first of them to be completely off his rocker. It's the delivery, feeling and ability he has to make your mind journey between many different frames of mind that sets him apart. Weirdy Beardy, bizarre or plain loopy - they're all apposite terms. But unique is far more appropriate.