Ma, the latest album by Devendra Banhart arrived last year with little in the way of fanfare or noise, appropriate given the hushed, gentle direction his music has been slowly moving in over recent years. It may have been a record that was unlikely to dramatically broaden his appeal but maybe that wasn’t strictly needed given the devoted crowd that assembled to see him play a show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Andy Cabic of Vetiver opened the night, proving that Banhart wasn’t the only artist to release an album that slipped under the radar somewhat last year. The tracks he plays from Up On High, the Vetiver album that appeared in low-key fashion in November, sound simultaneously fresh and timeless with the likes of Swaying and Wanted, Never Asked sounding particularly sunshine-infused. This short set shows Cabic to still be a purveyor of melodic audio tactility of the highest order.
When Banhart takes to the stage he’s dressed in a green cardigan, a preppy white polo shirt and sensible trousers, hair still long but now managed in place. Early selections come mostly from the new album, each song seemingly having the delicacy and finesse of an immaculately presented flower arrangement. Is This Nice?, Kantori Ongaku and Taking A Page are all charming vignettes, showing how the freak/free/acid/alt/weird folk roots of his earlier albums have been largely left behind for something more civilised and polished.
He slowly introduces older songs into the mix. It feels like only Devendra Banhart could release a song called Theme For Taiwanese Woman In Lime Green and tonight it sounds as sensuously intoxicating as you’d expect. Mi Negreta offers an early Latin excursion while the slightly goofy Fancy Man sees him explore the stage in suitably loose-limbed, camp fashion.
He projects a zen mindfulness over much of the show, whispering asides to the crowd and feeling his way around the songs via hand gestures and theatrical movements. It may be artful and actorly, but it’s also shot through with moments of surreal humour. He bizarrely compares his hips to a Chinese fortune cookie and ponders what would be found inside said cookie should it be cracked open before settling on “a dick pic from my grandfather” as an answer. He later encourages us to imagine the affect the music is having on the “flora and fauna in our lower intestines” and his faithful followers dutifully lap it all up.
He dips into his Cripple Crow album for the exotic potpourri of deliciousness that is Quédate Luna and the more prosaic Heard Somebody Say, both played partly in response to requests from the crowd. They’re preceded by the exquisite Carolina which has a pacific stillness to it, not to mention a real stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty. Placing new songs next to old this this case only serves to emphasise their strength.
At this point he decides to take a short mid-gig break, lighting an incense stick and departing the stage to allow his drummer to play a ten-minute drum solo. When he returns, he leads a disco version of Fig In Leather while sashaying flamboyantly around the stage. He generally stays clear of playing any of his obvious hits but comes closest with the mirage-like slow jam of Seahorse and the flamenco-flavoured Carmensita. Much of tonight may have had a comfortable sojourn-like feel to it but it also showed that while his music may be on a journey of refinement he’s very much taking his fans along with him for the ride.