Devendra Banhart, Niño Rojo

L.A. Times | by Steve Hochman

show review

Often you can tell more about an artist when things go wrong than when things are all perfect.

With Devendra Banhart and his band, it was a totally go-with-the-flow Saturday when half the power failed on the stage at the Echo's new downstairs hall. The musicians simply started a jaunty hand-clapped rhythm and improvised a stoner campfire chant. What else would you expect from a bunch of hippies? As they sang in one later song, "We had a choice, we chose rejoice."

With that sense and with the elastic folk-blues at the root of many songs, Saturday's show was a treat for anyone who has fond memories of the Incredible String Band, the Holy Modal Rounders or Donovan (though most of the fans on hand were way to young to remember any of them).

Banhart, raised in Venezuela and California, arrived a couple of years ago as if beamed down from another planet, his debut album collected from songs recorded on answering machines and other low-tech gear. Now he's the center of a rapidly expanding universe of hippie-folk, and this show made it clear that he is rising to the challenge of that status.

With his Christ-like appearance, he was loose but confident, and the band (a fairly recent assembly sporting members of L.A.'s Beachwood Sparks and San Francisco's Vetiver) helped hone the music into a sharper package. And he's a compelling singer, even when indulging in affected falsettos and quavers.

He remains every bit the man-child — he talked to the animals in "Little Yellow Spider," while other songs were sweet seductions. But the biggest proof of hippie cred was that there was not even a hint of irony when he turned controversial R&B star R. Kelly's "Step in the Name of Love" into his musical mantra, joyously singing, "Tell everybody you love everybody."