Psychedelic six-strings

Boston Phoenix | by BY MAC RANDALL

Devendra Banhart and the avant-folk movement

Even when you’re in the salubrious environs of Paris, as singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart is today, talking over the phone to a journalist can be tiring. But the boots he’s just bought are keeping his enthusiasm high; word is they once belonged to film icon Gary Cooper. "It’s hard finding shoes that I like," the 23-year-old says, "but I like Gary Cooper’s."

You could say that Banhart — born in Texas, raised in Venezuela, and a world traveler by inclination — has stepped into someone else’s shoes in more ways than one. His musical footwear, however, owes little to the golden age of Hollywood and quite a lot to the psychedelic ’60s. On his latest album, Niño Rojo (Young God), he warbles lines like "Cook me in your breakfast, put me on your plate ’cause you know I taste great" ("At the Hop") over the plink of a nylon-string guitar. The gnomish quiver in his voice coupled with the whimsical lyrics brings back memories of Donovan, the Incredible String Band, and Tyrannosaurus Rex–era Marc Bolan. His beard, long hair, Indian name, and general demeanor boost the impression of a flower child born 30 years too late.

Banhart, who’ll be playing in Cambridge this Wednesday, isn’t alone. Over the past few years, a sizable number of young, acoustic-oriented artists have been reclaiming dusty folk idioms and recasting them in mildly hallucinogenic fashion. Many of them — harpist Joanna Newsom, for example, and the loose collectives Six Organs of Admittance and Vetiver — are friends of and frequent collaborators with Banhart, being based in the same Bay Area that spawned the original hippies. But this isn’t just a West Coast phenomenon. Country-blues modernist Entrance (a/k/a Guy Blakeslee) lives in Chicago, and introspective balladeer Iron & Wine (Sam Beam to his kids) hails from Florida. The music business being what it is, it doesn’t take long for a few vaguely similar-sounding artists to be lumped together and given a group name. Almost overnight, then, Banhart and company have become a movement. Depending on who you ask, it’s "new folk," "weird folk," or — most popular — "avant-folk."

Does the handle fit? "If we were still in the ’60s, I’d call what I was doing psychedelic folk blues," says Blakeslee, "but those words have been so poisoned by overuse that I just don’t try to describe it." Banhart believes that "the folk label doesn’t apply. I’m no purist, and I don’t comment on the past — I’m not taking a Dock Boggs song and throwing in the word ‘iPod.’ "

Calling these artists "avant-folk" does seem absurd. The term inplies they’re somehow abrasive or confrontational, and their music certainly isn’t. Then again, the easy, no-frills vitality of Vetiver’s homonymous debut album (on DiCristina) and Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop) suggests that the "avant" tag might not be that far off. This music is starting to take folk away from adult alternative quietude and returning it to the place that spawned its peak moments, where tradition and individual creativity collide. "I’ve known a lot of these people for a long time," says Banhart. "I don’t think of what we’re doing as a movement. I call it a family."

That’s news to Sam Beam, who’s never met Banhart or most of the other artists mentioned here. The fact that he’s among those thanked in the CD liner of Niño Rojo is a tad mystifying to him. "I’ve always felt isolated from scenes," says Beam, whose two discs as Iron & Wine sport a shy intensity and an unabashed melodicism that are reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith. "I don’t tour often so I don’t meet a lot of people." Still, he acknowledges that there’s a temperamental link of sorts between him and other avant-folkies. "We’re not a tight-knit group like the Seattle scene was in the ’90s, but it would be silly to say that there aren’t similarities. Devendra and Entrance and these other people are all focused on making acoustic music, and I think they’re amazing."

Everyone connected to the avant-folk family has roots in rock and roll. Guy Blakeslee started off playing in rock bands. Vetiver’s Andy Cabic still does; one of his other groups, Tussle, just put out an album on Troubleman Unlimited. So what led them to turn down the volume and grab acoustic instruments? For Cabic, it was the lack of two important things: "an amplifier and the money to go and buy one. Also, I was living in a house with many roommates, and probably playing quieter so as not to disturb them." Sam Beam has a similar story: "I was never in a situation where I could really jam on a loud electric guitar, or afford one."

Although financial and social circumstances as well as logistical benefits (read: less gear to deal with) may have been the initial reason for going acoustic, the sound of unamplified music is what keeps drawing these musicians back, a sound that seems inherently more direct and honest. "I just felt that my songs demanded a certain modest expression and would sound best with simple, understated instrumentation," Cabic explains. He does add, "That worked for these songs, at that moment, and may not be what I’ll do in the future."

Most avant-folk artists fit the classic stereotype of the record junkie. A question to Banhart about his influences prompts a dizzying tour. "First, your dad has a Van Morrison record, so you look him up and you get into Them, then you find out one of the guys from Them left the band and started Trader Horne with this lady who’d first tried out to be in Fairport Convention. What’s Fairport Convention? Oh yeah, Sandy Denny sang on a Led Zeppelin record. The circle keeps spinning."

It helps that we live in an age when music of all stylistic stripes, from every era of recorded sound, is more readily available than ever before, and when the level of popular-music scholarship is at an all-time high. (Just look at any issue of the British magazine Mojo.) This is a major factor in the avant-folk scene’s development, as young musicians continue to find hidden threads in the fabric of pop history and weave them into their own modern mantle. Vashti Bunyan is a British troubadour who made one record, 1970’s Just Another Diamond Day, then disappeared from the marketplace — until Banhart tracked her down more than 30 years later and persuaded her to sing a duet on his second album, Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God), which was released earlier this year.

Then there’s Blakeslee talking about Revenant Records’ massive boxed set compiling the work of country-blues master Charley Patton. "It continues to change my life, not just for the music but for the descriptions of what he sounded like live. He was almost shamanistic in concert — he’d play the same song for an hour and curse and scream and roll around on the floor." This description puts a different spin on the long, trance-inducing blues songs on Entrance’s latest, Wandering Stranger (Fat Possum). We know Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and the other country-blues greats only through three-minute songs, because when they recorded, that was the limit of the technology. What Blakeslee is trying to do, in part, is to reconnect to the way those blues men and women sounded in juke joints and at house parties. And thanks to his energetic spirit, the performance comes across as anything but an academic exercise.

There’s at least one other familiar pop stereotype to be found in the avant-folk scene: the home-studio tinkerer. Both Sam Beam and Devendra Banhart started down their current path by cutting rough solo demos on four-track-cassette machines for their own amusement. Recently graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, working odd jobs to get by, Banhart claims he had no dreams of stardom; married with children and teaching cinematography at a Florida film school, Beam was merely writing songs as a hobby. All the same, their crude home recordings would attract the attention of respected independent labels and be released by those labels in their original lo-fi state, with no studio sweetening. Iron & Wine’s first album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, came out in September 2002. Banhart’s debut, Oh Me Oh My . . . , was issued only a few weeks later.

Music with such a pronounced what-the-hell spirit, so obviously not tailored to please a specific audience, would seem doomed to cult status. To quote Niño Rojo’s "Noah," "Not everyone can relate to what you and I appreciate." And yet awareness and appreciation of artists like Banhart and Iron & Wine continues to grow. "Things go in cycles," says Beam. "For a while, lots of people were interested in electronic music, something removed from everyday human experience. Now, they’re looking for something they can relate to more."

That doesn’t necessarily translate into platinum sales, but it could mean success of a more modest sort. As Andy Cabic puts it, "I feel like the littlest fish in a rather large and polluted ocean of sound, and I just try and swim through all the crap and come up for air every now and then." When you consider the crap we all have to swim through, the left-field sound of avant-folk might be a welcome dose of oxygen.