Devendra Banhart - Live At The Barbican, London

In the company of an enigmatic oddball...
Devendra Banhart

It’s hot in London and by rights Devendra Banhart’s languid, Latin-influenced music should suit the sunshine perfectly.

Except, it doesn't. Instead, for some reason the heat seems to emphasise a creepy, queasy, almost cracked quality within the songs from ‘Mala’, Banhart’s eighth record, which he is in town to promote.

Banhart’s music has always had a dark undercurrent, of course, and it’s just easy to overlook those angles in favour of the weird, skewed, happy-go-lucky patina instead. But ‘Mala’ is a complicated album in an inexplicably complicated body of work, covering everything from lilting bossa nova through to bedroom electronica and as many diverse points of reference in between.

Presenting the tracks from the album, live, offers something of a logistical and stylistic nightmare. And so, somewhat inevitably, it’s the electronic angles that get left at the stage door, replaced instead by tight, adaptable playing from Rodrigo Amarante – something of the straight man to Banhart's more wayward character – and the rest of the band.

Amarante, who also provides a support slot of his own Caetano Veloso-referencing material, manages to pull off the female vocal on ‘Your Fine Petting Duck’, said track’s synthed-up Teutonic coda rendered as a funked-up disco track, replete with compulsive hip-swaying moves from Banhart.

Banhart, the singer and songwriter, is able to turn just about any piece into a weird soup consisting of everything from psychedelia (as evidenced on a lengthy jazz-rock number here, which fuses the essence of ‘Take Five’ with the heaviest of blues jams), through anguished at-the-crossroads howling, mellow Latin rhythms and nursery rhyme folk.

‘Little Yellow Spider’, delivered without the band, is as maddeningly screwy as ever, Banhart’s distinctive tremolo vocal sounding like Elvis’s, only denuded of any sense of sexuality. Elsewhere, his vocal style has the commanding hint of Jim Morrison reporting back from a major trip.

Watching Banhart the frontman is weirder still. Adept at standing on one leg for an unfeasibly long period of time, his signature move lands somewhere between focussed yoga posing and a suggestion that he desperately needs a pee. He also offers some seriously bad chicken dancing and all manner of general awkwardness, often throwing shapes not dissimilar to a youngest daughter having a major tantrum over not getting her own way. At another point he wraps his arms around himself like a straitjacket.

Add to that a sort of coquettish girliness, and it all makes for a strangely compelling performance that owes more to the Lindsay Kemp school of mime than anything else.

The highlight of the set is a summery ‘Baby’ from 2009’s ‘What Will We Be’, while ‘Mala’’s ‘Won't You Come Over’, delivered acoustically, journeys to an amusingly over-the-top dimension that the album version didn’t even remotely suggest.

‘Never Seen Such Good Things’, also from ‘Mala’, is perhaps the song that best cements the uncomfortable nature of these songs. “If we ever make sweet love again / I’m sure that it will be quite disgusting.” sings Banhart earnestly, slicing a hole right through the middle of what is an otherwise tender ballad.

Eight albums in, it remains unclear whether what Banhart does is shtick or piss-take, and the evidence presented this evening provides no clues. Until that’s clarified, Banhart the goofy showman remains an enigmatic oddball defying any sort of easy classification.

Words: Mat Smith

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