Last night the “freaky” Devendra Banhart didn’t make an appearance. No songs were performed cross-legged, nor were there any wig-outs. For the majority of the evening the 32-year-old American-Venezuelan hippy was, by his standards, practically understated. In keeping with his new album, Mala, he chose to emphasise songwriting over personality. For those of us who were beginning to lose faith in him, it all came as something of a relief.
At the beginning of Banhart’s psychedelic-folk career, the tall singer’s exotic approach led many to consider him a wunderkind. His imagination was wild and his South American influences made him seem almost literary. Soon, however, his trembling voice became caricatured. By the time “At the Hop” was used to promote a well-known brand of cheese, Banhart had started to seem more derivative than bookish.The hipsters who had discovered him stopped taking him seriously.
But Banhart is back on form. Mala is probably the best album he has recorded and he knows it. Last night his renewed self-confidence showed in his choice of warm-up act: the superb Rodrigo Amarante (who also happened to be part of Banhart's band). Amarante, a quiet, bearded Brazilian, took to the stage unassumingly and proceeded to stun with a sophisticated blend of Latin fusion. Somehow his voice drew you into the storylines, even though he was mainly singing in Portuguese. When Amarante finished his set, moving from acoustic to electric guitar and now singing in English, he sounded like a mix of Leonard Cohen, Seu Jorge, and Serge Gainsbourg. His was a tough act to follow.