Devendra Banhart with Vetiver and Joanna Newsom
Houston Press | by John Nova Lomax
If he doesn't slide off the rails, just you watch -- he'll prove to be one of this century's musicians who matterHeading another package tour of San Franciscans (see above), Devendra Banhart is a neo-folk oddball with a lot in common with Sam Beam, his Miami-based counterpart who records as Iron & Wine. Both cut their first album in their homes, on what in both cases are almost always described as "shoddy," "cheap" or "broken" four-track recorders. (It seems if you're destined to be regarded as a neo-folk weirdo, you can't record yourself on a brand-new four-track in good working order.) The music of both men is said to be able to take you away from whatever place and time you happen to be situated in. Both play live, seated cross-legged, to super-hushed audiences of true believers, most often smart kids from expensive and prestigious colleges, sophomores in search of "authenticity," which they generally think can come from only mentally ill people like Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis or freaky-looking dudes like Beam, whose beard is abnormally large.
Or the Texas-born Banhart, who according to a recent article in Uncut was dubbed "Devendra" by his parents' guru and whose top-secret middle name was taken from Star Wars. Banhart won't say which character, though Yoda seems the likeliest choice. After all, "Devendra Han," "Devendra Luke" and "Devendra Obi-Wan" don't quite have the same ring as "Devendra Yoda." And as someone who was almost named "Geronimo Nova Lomax" can almost tell you, monikers like that could help keep you from seeking stuff like MBAs or law degrees.
Luckily, Banhart is as extremely, scarily and eerily talented as he is oddly named. It's seldom noted in reviews, but Banhart's alternately dazzling and gorgeous acoustic guitar playing is music-box pretty -- simple lines played gently, always evocative of nighttime. His high-pitched, tremolo-laden voice -- oft compared to that of Marc Bolan, though Banhart claims to have first heard the T. Rex singer only recently -- wafts through the air like a butterfly over a field of sunflowers, and his lyrics, though somewhat obtuse, rise above the mere freakish prattle so many music scribes today mistake for profundity. The total package sounds like the eternal voice of true American folk music -- that is, music made by folks, not folkies. Only 23, Banhart could become the nextâ€¦uh, the nextâ€¦the next nobody. He's the first Devendra Banhart, and if he doesn't slide off the rails, just you watch -- he'll prove to be one of this century's musicians who matter.