“I play pop music…but it’s not popular.”
Although he was joking, Banhart certainly wasn’t lying. Of the ten songs he performed Friday evening, a cursory Google search only resulted in the name of one – “Baby” – and a significantly more rigorous scouring of the web returned an additional three. The general consensus – either you’re a die-hard fan, or you’ve never heard of him. Lured by the promise of free tickets, the majority of the roughly 200 person audience was comprised of Berkeley students who likely had as much prior knowledge of Banhart as I did – absolutely none. Nevertheless, the soft-spoken musician easily captivated and delighted those in attendance, and undoubtedly gained new fans by the end of the night.
Before Banhart took the stage – if you could call a single microphone in front of a projector screen a stage – a collection of let’s say, eclectic, videos were played. I have never dropped acid before, but I presume that it would be the necessary impetus to create such videos. At best, they were mildly unpleasant, at worst, extremely disconcerting. There was one clip, however, “Valentine for Perfect Strangers,” a popular viral video from 2006, that was, shockingly enough, extremely funny and enjoyable. The 3 minute short featured Otto the feral cat’s unsuccessful search for love via the Internet.
Devendra Banhart has lived in Venezuela, Los Angeles, and Paris, but his music career began to flourish in the Bay Area. Despite the fact that his stint as a student at the San Francisco Institute of Art was short-lived, the support he received from Professor Bill Breckson encouraged him to begin pursuing music. Breckson’s influence was evidently so great that he was on hand to introduce Banhart to the Berkeley audience gathered at BAM. After graciously thanking his former teacher, Banhart begin to play. Although he is frequently associated with the “New Weird America” genre – a style of “psych-folk” indie music – it was not necessarily apparent to those in attendance. Equipped with nothing but his guitar and voice, Banhart filled the gallery space with the hushed sounds of his songs. Students huddled around him as they sat with their legs criss-crossed, which was entirely appropriate given the childlike quality of his music with its lullaby-esque melodies and lyrics like, “Little white monkey, staring at the sand/Well, maybe that monkey figured out something I couldn’t understand.” Spanish songs, including “Santa Maria de Feira”, were interspersed amongst songs with English lyrics.
As previously alluded to, Banhart is an extremely bashful and mild-mannered individual. At no point did he come off as pretentious (which he easily could have had he been a bit more somber due to the “artistic” video montage that led into his set). He danced and was silly, purposefully lisping the lyrics to his songs for comedic effect (“…pretty flowers on my dressssss…”). Before breaking out into a rendition of his song “Little Yellow Spider” (the lyrics to which can be found above), he joked, “This is a pop song…very high brow. It’s gonna [mimes mind being blown]. Lofty.” Banhart didn’t treat his performance as if it was some groundbreaking feat of artistic genius; he was content just playing in front of an audience. The only negative aspect of the performance was its length – at only 45 minutes long, I was left wanting more. If you haven’t listened to Devendra Banhart, I strongly suggest you check him out.