Devendra Banhart performed for more than two hours on The Pabst Theater stage on Sunday night for a small-but-devoted audience. It was the first time Banhart played in Milwaukee, and most of his material was from the yet-to-be-released "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyo" which comes out later this month on XL Recordings.
Banhart's music has been dubbed indie folk, freak folk and psych folk, but it's nearly impossible to label the 26-year-old musician's style. Born in Texas and raised in Venezuela, Banhart draws from a variety of genres including folk, rock, jazz and the spirit of Tropicalism, a Brazilian style of art and music from the '60s and '70s. His voice ranges from a quivering Nick Drake to a much deeper Nick Cave or Jim Morrison. At times he appeared to be almost channeling the Lizard King, especially when grasping the mic with both hands and belting out lyrics in a mucho sexy yet tortured sort of way.
Banhart -- although clearly loving the limelight of center stage -- plugged his band mate's individual projects and turned over the mic a few times. For last night's show, the band went by the "Spiritual Boner(z)" -- the "z" is silent, Banhart explained -- but the group has a new name with just about every venue, including the Tennessee Cops, Hairy Fairy, Deep Fried Hummingbird and Brain Taint.
The loosy-goosy name changing is in step with the rest of Banhart's style. Clearly, he had a partial set-list, breaking into "Chinese Children" per the request of someone in the audience, and later, he invited a random audience member on stage to play a half-finished, original tune. For the last number, he invited the entire audience on stage for a "dance party" which resulted in close to 100 people getting down with the band, including a maraca-shaking Banhart.
The freewheelin' spirit is mirrored in his lyrics, too. At one point he sang the gorgeous, smoky "Freely" featuring the line "There's only one way to shine/It's trying to live freely." ("Not to be confused with 'Freebird,'" he joked.) Later, he performed the beautiful, eight-minute "Seahorse" containing the line "I'm high and I'm happy and I'm free."
Everyone in the band -- except one -- sports long hair and a bushy beard. Banhart, who has a boyish Manson look going on, donned his usual psychedelic folkie appearance enhanced with a theatrical flavor -- last night he had penciled "Raggedy Andy" black lines under his eyes. The audience had a fantastical freedom rock feel as well, with one guy sporting a headband splayed with feathers; another devouring a massive cup of soup while listening to the show.
The spirit of fairy folkstress Joanna Newsom -- an alt-harpist who's coming to The Pabst Oct. 21 -- swirled the stage like incense. Banhart and Newsome have performed shows together; Newsom's brother Pete plays piano in Banhart's band; and guitarist Noah Georgeson produced Newsom's "The Milk-Eyed Mender."
Banhart, who has been described as strange and uncomfortable in other reviews, seemed well adjusted on Sunday night. He was charming, cracked jokes and banged out more than 150 minutes of music. He's definitely not understood by everyone, and has a sound that's so eclectic -- and at times uneven -- that it needs to grow on you, but his courage to banter between the genius and the fool deserves a round of Leslie Feist-inspired clapping. (Insert clapping here.)
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.