Michael Gira + The Birdwatcher + Devendra Banhart | Live at Tonic | Review

You can’t keep your eyes off of Devendra Banhart

at Tonic, NYC, May 26, 2002

After only a few seconds of beginning his set with an a cappella tune, the audience’s attention was solely his. What is immediately noticeable about Mr. Banhart’s is his unique voice. Playful and quietly passionate, it often instinctually launches into an instantly appealing, trembling, quirky falsetto. What could easily be used as a gimmick is instead employed by this idiosyncratic troubadour as a genuine means to create good songs. The lyrics that the voice rattles off are really odd stream-of-conscious rhyming sentences that always seem to revolve around lungs, seas, salt, birds, parents and more strange stuff that caused several audience members to smile, arch their eyebrows, and scratch their heads throughout his "performance".

Banhart’s hectic guitar strumming gives him the impression of being a lean, elongated, hummingbird. His simple, enjoyable melodies provide an emotional environment and enhancement for his weird lyrics, everything eventually coming together as a surreal yet very direct form of storytelling that is extremely enjoyable and satisfying. I believe his entire "performance" was improvised. If so, then that makes it all the more impressive. He occasionally injects the word "Okay" when he feels that his playing is meandering a bit (more to himself than to the audience) or a phrase ("And here’s where the fancy guitar part comes in") to offset whatever technical prowess he feels he lacks. Devendra Banhart played for about 25 minutes, but I don’t think anyone would have been bothered if he had continued for 2 or 3 more hours.

Dan Matz’s (Windsor for the Derby) The Birdwatcher executed a series of intelligent, sometimes discreetly primal songs schooled somewhat in the precise, forceful minimalism established by headliner Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light). Mr. Matz manages to make the most out of an acoustic guitar, drums and keyboard lineup (an extra bassist/vocalist & guitarist were scheduled to appear, but did not). Although each musician’s part seems to have been painstakingly, mathematically devised and mapped out, Matz’s clear, steady, determined voice guided the sound along with emotion, switching between tones both hushed and impassioned.

Aside from The Birdwatcher playing a good version of "Brown Eyes", there were no other songs covered from "What We Did", Matz’s collaborative album with Michael Gira. This was the only disappointment of the evening. After he began his own set with what I assume was a new song from the still-in-progress-and-untitled Angels of Light album, Gira played commanding, solo acoustic versions of current songs ("What Will Come", "Nations", "My Suicide", "All Souls Rising", "Two Women"), and classics from his days in Swans ("Goddamn the Sun", "Failure", "Love Will Save You"). When performed alone, the songs seem more like mantras, and the acerbic beauty of the lyrics grows in prominence. Each note and word has weight to it. Despite the intensity of Gira’s language and of his playing - he was still nursing the thumb he split open last year from strumming too hard – there was also a warm, intimate and open aspect to his musicianship. It felt as if an old friend had invited you over to spend some time with him, albeit with private exorcisms taking place of nice conversation. Well, not really, as Mr. Gira was, as usual, very polite, jovial and charismatic toward his audience between songs.

In addition to just releasing a live, limited edition Angels of Light CD titled "We Were Alive!", Michael Gira will also publish Devendra Banhart’s album later this year on his Young God Records label. The Birdwatcher’s newest release, "Afternoon Tales the Morning Never Knew", was distributed this year by Arena Rock Recording Co.