REVIEW – Philly’s live music scene triggered my latest existential crisis Saturday. Two psych-rock patriarchs played the same night: Devendra Banhart at the Fillmore at the TLA and Animal Collective at the Starlight Ballroom. As a sucker for any music of the New Age folk, tripped out, changes-my-brain-waves persuasion, it was a tough call.
Plus, both acts just came out with a new album this month and I hadn’t seen either perform before. Judging them solely on their latest releases, Animal Collective takes the jam-bandy, funkadelic cake. Their Strawberry Jam is a musical growth spurt whereas Banhart’s Smokey Rolls Down the Thunder Canyon is retrograde.
Well, that was my opinion pre-show, anyway. On Saturday morning, my thoughts on the two CDs went like this:
Banhart’s new recordings are a rip-off of his own freaking work. It’s his sixth album Cripple Crow, but without the lilting, inspired lyrics that made the earlier masterpiece so digestible. Smokey is full of mumbly-jumbly vocals and feels borderline adult contemporary. And adult contemporary is a black hole you never come back from. It means you are completely unlistenable. It means you are Enya.
What made the decision bloody rough was that Banhart’s early works are spiritually heavy, lyrically dense masterpieces. The Black Babies, Nino Rojo and Cripple Crow sound like they were written by an ancient Spanish pirate who is well-studied in Tropicalismo, poetry and getting down like James Brown. But his new stuff didn’t get me off, and Animal Collective’s did.
And yet I went to see Banhart. To be honest, it may have been his recent glam-rock-shaman look that wooed me: the man’s been wearing 3-foot headdresses and full-on Ziggy Stardust makeup lately. Regardless, I bought the loopy loon’s ticket and he took me for a loopy voodoo magical ride.
And now I love Smokey Rolls Down the Thunder Canyon.
Banhart turned me onto his new album with his performance – the art of entertaining is in Banhart’s blood; his ancestors were probably homeless street mimes peddling money for wine. He named his six-man backing band “Spiritual Boner” for the night. He said things like “I’m talking about the eternal giggle that vibrates through everything, man.” The dude swaggered like a drunken cowboy, sashayed like a little girl, shook his hips like Elvis. Oh, and he told a 10-minute story about snorting the South American drug yopo. It involves shoving a bamboo stick up your nose and taking a deep, hard inhalation. It was beautiful.
The two-hour set was heavy on Smokey material, but I didn’t mind. It felt good having all of my pretentious misconceptions about the album ripped out of my skull. The two-man, three-man, sometimes six-man harmonies on songs like “Cristobal” and “Tonada Yanomaminista” were ’60s girl-group perfect. For “Lover,” Banhart ditched the guitar, grabbed the microphone like it was the last woman on earth and transformed into a Frank Sinatra-Jim Morrison hybrid.
When he stretched his mouth open like a baboon in “Long Haired Child,” Banhart’s vocal chords echoed and I knew why he wanted a baby and I wanted one, too. His baby, to be specific. I heard that Animal Collective had a light show, but damn, Banhart and the Spiritual Boner made me think I was a Spanish flamenco dancer for a band of Old World guitar masters. And that’s all I really want out of music: a brief vacation, an escape, a two-hour mental road trip to South America.
Holly Otterbein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.