Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver

Illinois Entertainer | by Steve Forstneger

Live Review
Bottom Lounge, Chicago
Sunday, June 13, 2004

Banhart offered few clues as to how full his set would be, and perpetrated some eccentricity early on when he joined openers Vetiver for the first half of their set. He's credited as a band member on the group's self-titled debut, but according to frontman Andy Cabic, this was the first time on this tour Banhart played with them. The singer apparently had to be stirred out of some religious pregame rituals, because he took the stage draped in a bed sheet and looked like Jesus with an oversized beard. He also sat on a chair so small that no one behind the first three rows of people could see him. Later, when he entered the stage for his own set, he quickly introduced his "favorite" band, The Viking Dolls, and disappeared.

Does he assuage fears when he re-enters? No. He announces that he's going to get through as many songs as possible and try not to play too many of his "bummer" tunes. Being alone on the stage is scary enough, since the tracks on his most recent, Rejoicing In Hands, are meticulously complemented with strings and bells. But as soon as he began picking at his guitar and warbling the vocals to "This Is The Way," he kidnapped the crowd. Still seated -- this time a little higher up -- he rocked back and forth while his head and eyes moved independent of each other, like watching Charles Manson channel Jeff Buckley and Marc Bolan. It wasn't enough to shake his flower-child optimism, however, and when he keyed the last lyric, ""We've known we have a choice; we choose 'Rejoice,'" the audience roared in approval -- not just for the performance, but for the sentiment.

He seemed fond of celebratory verse and accentuated certain lines throughout his set like, "Love, it will be much better -- I know," the repeated "A real good time/A good time" chorus in "This Beard Is For Siobhan," and even in a cover of Neil Young's "Pardon My Heart," "It feels so good when love flows the way that it should/It feels so good." What makes him so flooring is an almost complete ignorance of what's going on around him. He doesn't preach, whine, howl, pander, or draw any sort of attention to himself outside of singing his non-bummer tunes. Even the Spanish lyrics in "Todo Los Dolores" rang with a sprightly pluck.

Pluck is exactly what he needed following the pixie-ish Joanna Newsom, who had a bevy of Drag City friends in the audience cheering her on. The capsule description for Newsom is that she's Björk with a harp, but that fails to capture what an original she is. After taking an eternity to tune the harp, she clapped along to her a cappella opener before settling into a dazzling set full of whimsy and fairy-tale romances crossed with modern relationships.