First of all, it is hard to overstate how emotionally freaked-out girls get about Devendra Banhart. An hour before I went to his September 7, 2007 concert at the Palace of Fine Arts, I got a call from a hippie girl I had just met at the Green Tortoise youth hostel. M was just beside herself with nervous laughter, gushing at the prospect that she might get to meet a man she said she would do anything to see in person, marry, sleep with, etc. She wanted to know if she could come with me. I was about to leave anyway so I said sure...why not?
Her hair was freshly blow-dried, her nails painted, she wore cut off jeans with tights, and a strange necklace hung around her neck. Most importantly she had brought along her magic rock. Her magic rock, she told me (which she got in Kansas), divined that one day she would meet Devendra and that he would fall in love with her. She believed that an element of fate would bring them together and that it was a mystical thing.
Yet she didn't even recognize Devendra as he approached me on the sidewalk in front of the Palace of Fine Arts. I had to get her to focus on the guy coming our way so she didn't miss him. He and I chatted for a moment and as I went to shake his hand he reached out and gave me a big hug instead. I knew him from the Mission District and from art shows here (FYI: he's a famous artist too). The band was about to do the sound check so I knew it wasn't really a good time to talk. But he smiled, glanced over at M then went back inside with a group of people.
It took a few minutes for M to process what had just happened to her. After all, Devendra Banhart had just looked at her; they were face to face! She kept repeating "I can't believe I just met him, I can't believe I just met him. Oh my god, oh my god." Her first rational thought was that she wanted to go get a bottle of whiskey somewhere to calm down. Since we arrived early, we took swigs of JD and coke on the way back to the Palace.
By the front doors emotions were running high. A guy standing next to us had surprised his girlfriend by taking her to the show in a cab. But he did so without telling her. She of course was upset because she had no time to get ready or to change what she was wearing. She was on the verge of tears. How could he do that to her? Just surprise her like that? She was livid, so she walked away from him and drank half a bottle of wine with some other girls outside. Meanwhile he paced nervously wondering out loud what he had done wrong.
Inside the Palace the opening act began. It was Noah Georgeson, a music producer and Banhart guitarist, playing songs from his recently released solo album Find Shelter. He sat on a chair and played his guitar to a packed house. Georgeson holds a Masters Degree in music composition from Mills College, and first gained notice with his producing of Johanna Newsom and Banhart's earlier albums. Like Banhart, his songs are folksy and world-weary. He created a very calming atmosphere with his set.
After a brief intermission six musicians slowly walked on stage. It's always a guess as to what the band will be called. Previously they have named themselves the Hairy Fairy band, Fried Hummingbird, First Woman Millionaire, Las Putas Locas, Stoner Boner, Bathhouse Of The Winds -- but now, as of September 1st, they're known as Devendra Banhart and the Spiritual Bonerz. Along with a new name and a new album, the music itself introduces another chapter in the band's development. Influences of country, blues, '70s classic rock, Son Cubano, Samba and even doo-wop were present in many of the songs. The sound of the new album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain (SRDTM), is an evolutionary step from the previous one, Cripple Crow.
Where Cripple Crow had more catchy tunes and solo guitar work, SRDTM has high production values and shows off the musicianship of the band. It also demonstrates their knack for understanding various genres of music and blending them seamlessly. This is the sort of album you'd enjoy while sipping a cognac in a dimly lit, smoke-filled bar after having broken up with your girlfriend.
When asked about the influences in the new album, Banhart replied to me via email: "The '70s thing, although it MIGHT be VERY accurate, I tend to not feel any alliance or attempt to approximate an era that, though I wasn't there, I do have hundreds of records to get a vibe from."
Midway through the set, when Devendra announced they were going to play a new song called "Bad Girl," I kid you not -- there was a collective and audible gasp from half of the women in room. It was as if he had written a song for them, like he knew them somehow, and understood.
With a slide guitar motif and meloncholic vocals, the song is a dreamy, slow groove. It's a ballad that wonders, "Why did you leave me? Well I don't really know..." It reminded me of Beck's neo-country sounding "The Golden Age," with it's looking back to what-might-have-been sentiment and guitar phrasings. It's hard to explain the energy of the crowd, but many people called out to the group during the song pledging their love to guys in the band.
"Carmencita," another track from the new album, is a song that got people dancing right away. Crowded in the front rows people swayed back and forth. All six band members played together to form a BIG sound, just the opposite of the solo guitar work that Banhart first became known for. The strong reverb on the vocals (to psychedelic effect), a thick sumptuous bass line and copious amounts of bongo drums rocked the house.
People in the front rows got so excited they started jumping up on the stage. Soon the crowd was so big you couldn't see the band and everyone was dancing. Yet despite all the fun, about half the songs they played were from Cripple Crow and Rejoicing in the Hands. We only got to hear a handful of new songs. Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain is available September 25, 2007.