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January 19th, 2008

Devendra Banhart live at MoMA review


Photo: Lauren Dukoff

If you’ve been reading Naturalismo for awhile you most likely will have noticed two things; the first being my unrelenting pursuit to convince and convert as many people as possible to turn on to what I think is the most important and interesting music movement in decades, the second being my large affinity for the man who personally restored my faith in contemporary music. Forgive me if I sound personal in this review but in actuality the experience of seeing Devendra Banhart live at the MoMA in San Francisco last night was largely so. Like a Velvet to the image of what New York City was in the 60’s, the mythos of the recent folk artists from San Francisco had a similar appeal to me for years. It took me a few years before I realistically could move up to San Francisco. A triumphant homecoming for Devendra and a new beginning for me. Sold out in what couldn’t have been more than a day, Devendra Live at MoMA quickly turned into Devendra SOLD OUT – no chance of getting in. Press passes all passed out and fleeting notions of standing in the cold outside with a sign for a ticket all fell by the wayside with a chance encounter of meeting the man himself a few nights before the concert. We’d met briefly before, but I’ve sometimes found myself more tied into the idea of the mystery than to the unpredictable reality of meeting someone whose creative output you admire. In person the same as his song. A feeling of familiarity and comfort, a great conversation had about his music and others-a pair of passes given to the sold out show. As much as it was a personal experience for me-it couldn’t have been more so for Devendra. It wasn’t long ago that Devendra resided in San Francisco, a student at the SF Art Institute only to leave in the wandering pursuit of what would eventually become his thriving musical career. All of these thoughts were surely cycling through his mind as he took the stage last night at the MoMA.

One floor above the stage, Devendra’s art on display alongside Paul Klee’s in an exhibition titled Abstract Rhythms– served also as the perfect description for the first Brazilian influenced lead-in song of the night. Most noticeable was the new sound direction ventured into on his most recent album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. While Devendra’s carved from wood vocal chords rattled and punctuated the songs-it was the increased harmonization with the rest of the band that was most noticeably different from any previous concert I have seen of his. With the soaring and tidal choruses of songs such as Seaside, alternating ooh’s washing over the audience, I remembered reading that several of the songs were recorded while out at sea and remarked at just how well they were able to recreate that feeling through song. From the creaky bellows of Noah Georgeson’s cavernous voice, to Luckey Remington’s swaying bass lines, all set in motion through the tide of Andy Cabic’s breathy vocals- their combined sound swelling into a much larger wave of sound than capable of one alone. Samba Vexillographica got the audience moving with its moments of “equatorial pop”- the title of which translates to the study of flags – Devendra assuring the audience that the song was meant to evoke much more than that. What really made the night a unique experience was hearing Devendra and the rest of his band reminiscing about their earlier life and friendship in San Francisco. Devendra, proudly describing his position as head of the popcorn department at the Castro theater, meeting up with Andy at his job at Aardvarks. Later on it was Noah begrudgingly mentioning that Devendra never gave him popcorn-despite being head of the popcorn department. Andy then recalling the time after the earthquake visiting Devendra at the theater, taking a seat directly below the imposing downward facing ornate and imposing spire, immediately feeling that it was the worst place and feeling to be sitting below it, “Aftershocks, man.” Of course Devendra drew reference to Paul Klee during the night, reading his epitaph that went as follows:

I cannot be grasped in the here and now. For I reside just as much with the dead as with the unborn. Somewhat closer to the heart of creation than usual. But not nearly close enough.


The infamous Castro theatre spire

I got the impression that Devendra was extremely humbled by the experience, his stories and banter often serving to lighten the mood for what had been billed as a very special night. “Oh no, that wasn’t artsy enough of a story,” Devendra quipped at one point-humorously drawing attention to the idea that he had to somehow steer the nights stories towards the art realm while at the MoMA. All in all, the concert was quite a special experience. I feel fortunate enough to have been able to attend it and truly believe that the show will be remembered for much longer from now. For those who have not had the chance to see Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon material performed live yet, I cannot recommend going out to see it enough. The songs simply became alive last night.


  1. does anyone know any cheap housing available in SF?
    email :

    Comment by Irfan — January 21, 2008 @ 9:56 am
  2. I can relate, Devendra Banhart has also restored my faith in music. I saw him perform this past October in a synagogue in Washington, DC. I wrote a review/tribute here:

    Thanks for focusing on the great music of today. I just saw Ben Chasny Friday perform in a chapel in Charlottesville, VA. Just awesome!!!

    Comment by zoe — January 27, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

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