DEVENDRA BANHART + ENTRANCE | by Alexandra Chassanoff

10 February 2003: The Choppin Block — Boston Live Review

Do you remember the first time you heard the blues? Was it a life-changing experience? I remember the first time I heard Billie Holiday. It was the summer of 1991 and I had been fascinated, in the manner that we are with events from our adolescence, with the conflict between African-Americans and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was a freshman in high school and had been only minimally exposed to anything outside of hip-hop (thanks to my friends), top 40 (thanks to the radio), and the Descendents or the Pixies (thanks to my older brother's record collection). It wasn't hard for me to make the leap from hip-hop artists like Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth or EPMD since the genre was already chockfull of samples from old soul or blues tracks. But nothing could prepare me for the feelings that flooded through me upon hearing "Strange Fruit" for the first time that summer. It was in the background of a video montage constructed to summarize the events of that summer. That day the genre of "the blues" was consciously defined for me upon hearing the emotion in Holiday's voice -- a heartbreak and sorrow that formed an empathetic lump in my throat.

I had the blues redefined for me a few weeks ago -- in fact, twice in one night. Let's talk about the first: it was in the form of a scrawny, 21-year-old white guy. Who'd have thunk? He was someone you would have mistaken for an indie rocker, with his stylish shirt, mass of black curls and down-turned mouth. He sat before us with a beat up-looking guitar posed upside down to accommodate his left-handedness. His left boot was hooked through a tambourine on the floor, and he sat on a stool with an unlit neon Bud Light sign as a backdrop. I know what you're thinking. This is the blues?

The man before us 30 or so patrons at the Choppin Block in Boston's Mission Hill was performing under the appropriate moniker of Entrance -- appropriate if you say it real slow-like. Entrance (a.k.a. Guy Blakeslee) is the newest addition to the Tigerstyle roster that houses such artists as Her Space Holiday, but he's no emo warrior. He plays a style of music that I can best describe as the Violent Femmes in their most extreme, blues-inflected incarnation.

Blakeslee is best known for his bass playing in the Baltimore-based group the Convocation Of. That association will probably lessen once you hear Entrance's debut record, The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken By Storm , or witness his enthralling performance. To see him live is a treat; he closes his eyes for most of his songs and appears to be singing his guts out to the ceiling while spastically strumming his upside-down guitar. His frenetic playing and belting vocals may be off-putting to some, but I found them enveloping. I had to kick myself frequently during the first song he sang to make sure that the voice I heard was, in fact, coming out of his body. It seemed more likely that the ghost of some 1930s blues singer had kidnapped his body.

Entrance sings of the night and ghosts and darkness in the tradition of so many blues performers: not with the evil connotations those things find in pop music today but as a place or thing that holds mystical qualities. His catalog consisted of mostly original songs (one exception being a truly great version of Skip James' "I'm So Glad"). He didn't play the only song I'd heard before his show -- a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Just Like Thom Thumb's Blues" that he has retitled "Tommy Thumb's Summertime Blues".

Devendra Banhart was the main act of the night -- and therein was another new experience to be had. Much has been written of Banhart in recent months; comparisons range from Marc Bolan to Tiny Tim, but putting all that aside, Banhart is a marvel of his own making. With his slight presence and baby face, Banhart appears a mere shadow of a man onstage. His voice is completely unlike what you would expect to come out of anyone making so-called "modern" music. It's a gentle warble that reaches for the highs and lows of octave ranges fluidly. His sing-song lyrics transcend from free association rhymes into whimsical stories and tidbits about life.

A typical example is found in the college-radio favorite, "Michigan State":
My friend has my favorite teeth
They lean forwards,
They bend backwards when she breathes. . . .
And my love has my favorite ears
Cause they lean forward when she hears

Banhart's storytelling draws from many traditions, most obviously the blues, but also from a cauldron of influences you'd be hard-pressed to find in the average 21-year-old. He openly praises and cites the influences of two '60s cult folksingers, Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan, in countless interviews. His lyrics make non sequitur leaps similar to those of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, not nearly as introspective as the latter but equally as sprawling.

Banhart played a satisfying set of about ninety minutes to an enchanted audience. Half of us were sitting cross-legged directly in front of him. Many of his songs started with his head turned upwards or back apart from the microphone -- but he didn't appear to be suffering from stage fright. He just seemed a bit unfocused and I could easily picture him changing many of the words in the songs he was playing just to keep himself amused.

He played several songs off his first record, the laboriously-titled Oh Me Oh My . . . The Way the Day Goes By the Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit. Particular highlights were the irreverent and melodic "Michigan State", the somewhat chilling "Cosmos and Demos", and his tribute to the aforementioned Dalton, "Thumbs Touch Too Much".

With moody artists like Cat Power, Songs:Ohia and Smog recently moving to the forefront of independent music, it appears a breed of singer-songwriters wedded to the blues will receive more attention. I can only hope there are even more musicians who can turn tradition on its butt, yet still retain a commitment to the roots of the forms that inspire them. We may not have Billie Holiday but we have her recordings. Her inspiration lives on in music being made in a time that needs its share of inspiration and creativity.