When Devendra Banhart opened for Beck at the Santa Barbara Bowl last May, I have to admit that I found the experience to be disappointing. Not that his songs or performance were lacking, but it was hard to feel the magic with the distraction of a sizable portion of the audience still filing in.
But the magic was there on Saturday night when Banhart played an intimate show at the SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, which was full of fans who were completely engaged with the man and his songs. I even heard people shushing noisy audience members during the quieter moments. In chatty Santa Barbara!
Banhart started out by himself with some charming ditties from his early “freak folk” days, including the whimsical “Little Yellow Spider” that greets a collection of animals one by one, with a curious eye.
The backing band accumulated during “Golden Girls,” a song that beckons the listener to “get on the dance floor.” This was the first of many songs off his fine new album, Mala, which has been hailed as something of a return to his roots.
Banhart also played some choice songs from Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, arguably his most popular album, including “Shabop Shalom” (but without the somewhat strange spoken intro). This one always cracks me up with its lyrics, “Who wrote the Book of Job?” and “Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” sung in the style of “Who wrote the Book of Love?”
Also from this album was “Seahorse,” no doubt the highlight of the show for me with its delicate intro, the trippy middle section where he repeats “I want to be a little seahorse” and “I want to see the little green men,” and then the riff-based hard rock ending.
The main set closed with “Your Fine Petting Duck,” with Banhart joined on vocals by his wife, Ana Kras, a Serbian photographer and designer.
Interesting fact: Banhart reportedly proposed marriage to Kras within five minutes of meeting her. Probably not coincidentally, the name of the new album, Mala, is Serbian for “my sweet dear thing.”
Banhart started his encore with “Won’t You Come Over” in a performance that would have made Jonathan Richman proud, then the band joined in for “I Feel Just Like a Child” with some delightfully impassioned singing.
To me, at least, SOhO was a much better fit for Banhart than his opening slot at the Bowl, with the intimacy of the venue allowing his charisma, effortless talent and natural charm to shine through, whether he’s on his own with a guitar or fronting a smokin’ band.
A Sight to Behold
The Body Breaks
Little Yellow Spider
At the Hop
My Dearest Friend
Fur Hildegard von Bingen
Never Seen Such Good Things
Your Fine Petting Duck
Won’t You Come Over
I Feel Just Like a Child
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.