Devendra Banhart's beautiful lies

By Katie Harger

I don’t want to know the truth about Devendra Banhart. This makes writing a review, or any sort of accurate criticism of him or his work, next to impossible. The truth, the real truth, is that Devendra simply shouldn’t be up for discussion; he’s beyond analysis. Anyone who attended his Oct. 26 concert at the Fine Line Music Caf can tell you that the experience altered them in the same way eating food or taking a walk alters someone: it was necessary, it was right, and it seared them in the fire of something both new and completely familiar. Maybe my friend Hadley’s reaction summarizes the way the Fine Line’s glassy-eyed audience and I reacted to his performance with bearded backup musicians The Hairy Fairy Band: “This is the music I’ve always been looking for,” she said, “and now I’ve found it.” Devendra’s warbly folk songs strike a nerve with almost anyone who hears them. From his scratchy, haunting first album, Oh Me Oh My, to Cripple Crow, his newest collection of approachable hippie sentiments, his music opens up a strangely illustrated world in which anything can happen. Listeners can believe in what Devendra has to say purely because of its lack of believability. He doesn’t rationalize; he simply is. Devendra has said in interviews that his family got plastic surgery for three of his dogs so that they would look like his grandma, that he has been homeless, that he is writing a 5,000 page Feng Shui and Zen cookbook, and that his ponytail is actually a strap-on ponytail. Trying to piece together a cohesive story in regard to his life is not only tedious, but futile.

Even the psych-folk musical movement to which he is generally thought to belong has an elusive definition: it’s something like traditional folk, but it’s also something like a kitten trapped in a metal garbage can with a guitar and a tape recorder. Magical realism as a genre has extended itself from literature to music in Devendra. The suspension of what is expected and what is logical makes viable, for example, a song whose entire lyrics consist of “I’m lost in the dark / Lend me your teeth.”

And so smothered in about two cubic feet of dark curly hair and an aura that could be sensed from about ten rows back in the audience, Devendra began his set at the Fine Line. He apologized for being sick and for dressing like his mom, who, we can infer, apparently wears a red sequined kerchief and a white sweater. His first song, Cripple Crow’s “Quedate Luna,” reminded everyone present of his Venezuelan upbringing and of the lilting, ethereal joy they had come to experience in the first place.

The show truly began, however, when Devendra decided to triumph over illness and strip off his sweater, baring pale, emaciated biceps and a style of dancing that was last seen in the party scenes of recent blockbuster The Lord of the Rings. Highlights of the show included energetic renditions of Cripple Crow’s “I Feel Just Like a Child” and “Long-Haired Child,” along with ample returns to classics like Ni¤o Rojo’s “At the Hop” and Rejoicing in the Hands’ “Fall.”

Fueled by the percussion and harmony of his hirsute band, Devendra’s power over the audience became visible when overweight and buzz-cutted men closed their eyes and swayed heavily to the music, most notably right in front of where I was standing.

Devendra seemed to reach everyone in the audience without even trying. After asking if anyone in the crowd wrote songs of their own, he yielded the stage to nervous scenester Ian, who muttered into the microphone for several minutes and was rewarded with, of all things, a hug. The overcrowded venue felt, despite the inability of most of us to breathe, strangely intimate. We all were there for the same reason. Our collective sigh after our plea for a second encore was denied revealed it: we were sad to return from the surreal world of Devendra, from whom we would be happy to perpetually hear beautiful lie after beautiful lie.

Email Katie at [email protected]