Live Review

Devendra Banhart, Barbican, London

His slew of personas overspill with ticks and facial spasms that are so theatrical he almost appears to be parodying himself.

A review of Devendra Banhart’s March-released eighth studio album ‘Mala’ concluded with the notion that the Venezuelan-American didn’t take himself as seriously as others do. Tonight, at London’s Barbican, this sentiment is rather tangible; he cracks jokes, tells wry stories and fidgets his way through each song as if he’s trying to wriggle free from his own skin, provoking the sort of intermittent uproar usually attributed to pre-watershed canned laughter. Of course, this playful magnetism would usually be a blessing, but sadly it almost works to his new album’s detriment at this sold out show.

It begins far better than it concludes, with the recent release’s strongest ditties (by far his best work for quite some time) undoubtedly front-loaded. The bass-y riff and naked whisper of ‘Golden Girls’, with its creepy ‘Get on the dancefloor’ refrain, is as hypnotic as any of his early freak-folk forays, before ‘Für Hildegard von Bingen”s scuffed riff, whirly synth and subtle strut proves mesmerising.

Sonically, the auditorium’s tech team sabotage ‘Baby’, one of the few moments of clarity on 2009’s messily-eclectic ‘What Will We Be’, with some pig-eared levels. Thankfully, a heckler’s cry of ‘Turn the vocal up!’ (to which Banhart quirkily replies, ‘You’ll have to buy me a drink first’ in a mock New York accent) doesn’t fall on deaf ears and by the time ‘Bad Girl”s lazy wash of guitars and ambling drums arrive, the sound is honed to the near-perfection expected.

But after he roams and ad libs during proggy centrepiece ‘Seahorse’, which erupts exceptionally into psych rock virtuosity, things take a downward turn. ‘Never Seen Such Good Things’ is littered with inane finger-clicking and a ludicrous chicken dance, before the drag queen karaoke of ‘Lover’ sees him plummet from entertainingly eccentric to nauseatingly silly.

After his band vacate, the nonsense continues; a made up song about a cab driver is followed by an annoying rendition of ‘Little Yellow Spider’, where his slew of personas overspill with ticks and facial spasms that are so theatrical he almost appears to be parodying himself. At best, tonight’s mixed emotions are a result of Banhart’s recent inconsistent output and dwindling acclaim, which interestingly draws parallels with Marc Bolan’s critical fare (in John Peel’s eyes especially) after he plugged in and shunned cross-legged, acoustic whimsy. At worst, he’s just naturally over-excitable, which is never dull, but is more than a touch overwrought.

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