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Devendra Banhart at The Rio

Freak folkie holds the pretense on new album

By Paul Davis

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Gypsy King Unofficial leader of the freak folk genre, Devendra Banhart has kept pushing musical boundaries.

My introduction to folk wunderkind Devendra Banhart was a textbook study in catching an artist on the cusp of fame in an unusually intimate setting. It was in 2002, when Banhart was touring living rooms and basements behind his verbosely titled debut Oh Me Oh My ... The Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. The Santa Cruz underground scene had been buzzing via the word-of-mouth indie telegraph that a very special show was coming to the "Broadway House," on the edges of the Beach Flats and downtown. There were murmurings that the town would be graced by a young folk singer with an unusual name and undeniable talent. Skeptical yet intrigued, I checked out Banhart among, at most, 30 other people in a cramped living room.

I don't mention this to shore up my "I was there first" cred; to be honest, I thought Banhart's performance that night was terrible, full of mannered eccentricities and psychedelic indulgences and histrionics, the sort of thing thankfully relegated to immediate obscurity. Banhart came across as little more than a precious and precocious freak act, a wannabe kook aping damaged geniuses Syd Barrett and Roky Erikson.

This is not the first time I've found myself on the wrong side of history. Since that performance, Banhart has become one of the essential artists of the decade. Even for skeptics, the impact he's had on the underground musical zeitgeist is undeniable.

Banhart was discovered in 2002 by Swans iconoclast Michael Gira, and his debut was roundly hailed with the sort of plaudits reserved for only a handful of artists each decade, a watershed moment for the underground rock scene. Suddenly, the indie underground, traditionally averse to anything smacking of the dreaded hippie tag, was awash in its own skewed summer of love, as the far-flung community that was awkwardly dubbed "freak folk" embodied the sound of the moment. Banhart's gypsy caravan of musical eccentrics grew exponentially with each month, seemingly embracing and consuming any sound on the fringes. Banhart and his ilk had clearly captured a legitimate cultural moment, a time when all of the factors had aligned to resurrect a heretofore discarded cultural thread.

Indeed, one of Banhart's greatest contributions may be his championing of a number of seminal '60s folk musicians—among them Vashti Bunyan and Bert Jansch—who had receded into obscurity in recent years.

Banhart has learned the elders' lessons well. His new album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain, completes his journey from that precious eccentric I caught playing a living room five years back to a fully realized and mature artist, as he continues to move away from the willful obscurity of his early albums to a place that sounds vital and wholly original. Banhart's shrill vocal acrobatics have been ironed out into a voice that resembles a bargain basement version of Rufus Wainright's operatic despair, and throughout Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain there's a fractured elegance to the proceedings, an understated existential dread that underpins every track. The album also shows Banhart continuing to reach out and embrace a wider tradition of folk and world traditions, tweaking reggae, introducing hints of tropicalia on songs like "Samba Vexillographica," and even kicking out a relatively charged rockabilly-tinged rave-up on "Tonada Yanomaminista," a tune that may be his most immediate work to date.

Banhart's previous album, Cripple Crow, was hailed by critics as his breakthrough, the moment that saw his widescreen ambitions come to fruition, and if that is so, then Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Mountain confirms Banhart's arrival as a songwriter who has finally lived up to all the hype and delivered on his promise. He's come a long way in five years.

DEVENDRA BANHART performs Thursday, Sept. 6, at 8pm at Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets $28 adv/$30 door. (831.423.8209)

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