The beginning of Devendra Banhart’s latest album Ma is a perfectly gentle, approaching melody, complete with a bouncy mallet, guitar-plucking and Banhart whisper-singing, “Would you like me to sing you this song?”
It is only fitting that Banhart used the song “Is This Nice” to open his eclectic performance at the UC Theatre on Oct. 22. The wispy 38-year-old sat down on a chair positioned in the middle of the stage — he was coated in a cool blue light with his left leg crossed properly over the right. Banhart ushered the audience into his set as he repeated “My beautiful boy,” part of the refrain of “Is This Nice.”
While the concert began on a mellow note, Banhart exerted meticulous control over the energy of his performance, conjuring the utmost hype for “Fancy Man” and “Baby.” A screen portraying the album cover of Ma served as a background for the stage, but Banhart made sure to play all of the fan favorites, primarily from albums of the past.
The Venezuelan American artist is known for his quirky character, and this truly shone throughout the concert as he maintained a rapport with his audience, conversing with folks in both English and Spanish and engaging with what they wanted to hear.
“Good evening, great evening, splendid evening … Splendid! What is your etymology? Earlier my partner asked me what the etymology of paranoid is … and I’m just now realizing that she was calling me paranoid,” Banhart said to the audience, riffing off his own words.
Banhart carried the performance with his effusive energy and love, walking across the stage with bombastic hand gestures and dazzling hip pops. Specifically for “Fancy Man”, a song which starts with a line crazy enough to match Banhart’s energy: “I heard there’s a brand new zoo in Thailand/ So I hitchhike on a private flight and got their man fast.” As this is a crowd favorite, the line cued the audience to go wild. Fans were impressed with an unforgettable image of Banhart shimmying along the stage, dragging his voice along as he sang, “’Cause I’m a fancy man/ Fancy man/ I’m a fancy man.”
The guitarist, however, was an underrated star of the show. Most notably, when Banhart performed songs such as “Für Hildegard von Bingen,” off of 2013 album Mala, the guitar tunes provided sharp melodic intros for Banhart’s voice.
Banhart also started singing “Your brother is young, Latin and proud” off the cuff, winning favor among the crowd, happily cheering back in Spanish. The pride in Banhart, his work and his roots, was palpable in the theater, especially when he performed 2007 hit “Carmensita,” which utilizes the distinct sound of maracas and Banhart’s voice to get fans moving. The song seemed to elicit the exact reaction Banhart was hoping for, as a fan jumped on the stage to dance and Banhart welcomed him with a warm hug and cheek kiss. In fact, the singer instructed the enthusiastic fan to jump into the crowd and asked the crowd to support him in his crowd surf — it worked without a flaw.
In addition to acknowledging his own culture, Banhart showcased his multicultural interests, thanking the crowd in Mandarin “shie shie,” then performing his new song “Kantori Ongaku,” an homage to Japanese musician Haruomi Hosono. The artist nods at various cultures without outright appropriating them, which can be applauded, although some may remain skeptical.
Throughout the show, it became clear that one does not go to a Devendra Banhart show just for his music, but also for his personality. As the performance progressed, the audience drifted closer and closer to the stage, enamored by Banhart’s words and smile. If given the green light, the whole theater might’ve just jumped onstage. As Banhart asked in response to the concert, by the end of the show only one question remained: What is the etymology of splendid? The answer was self-evident.