Devendra Banhart has made no secret of his love of certain 60s icons — hints of the Grateful Dead, Incredible Sting Band, Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison and Donavon float to the surface of his shimmering, liquid songs. But at downtown’s Orpheum Theater, the Topanga Canyon resident revived a less well-loved aspect of 60s culture: a confrontation between pop stars and authority.
About an hour into his show, following an intense perf of the epic “Seahorse,” the stunning, eight-minute standout from his wonderful new XL album, “Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon,” Banhart invited the aud to join him on stage. Most of his young, well-behaved fans took him up on the offer; so many in fact, they overwhelmed the musicians, with the overflow pooling in the aisles and the shallow orchestra pit.
But when theater management and security, concerned the stage might collapse under the increased weight, tried to restore order, threatening to close the show if the stage and aisles weren’t cleared, Banhart turned feckless and petulant, demanding that security leave the stage. The standoff took nearly 20 minutes to resolve itself, with the aud eventually leaving the stage and pit, but allowed to stand in the aisle. It was a shame, because Banhart and his four-piece band had been weaving a swirling, blissful spell.
It’s whimsical and energetic, but meandering — the songs percolate along without a destination in mind; they’re in no hurry to get there either. Along the road, they pick up different sounds like hitchhikers: a tipsy soft-shoe for “So Long, Old Bean,” a countrified Lennon in “Bad Girl,” some loping ’70s bubblegum disco on “Lover,” the tropicalia of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in “Christobel” (with, thesp Gael Garcia Bernal guesting on vocalsl). The aforementioned “Seahorse” starts out with a lolling “I’m stoned by I’m happy” and ends with a high-volume Led Zep guitar workout. “Shabop Shalom,” a Rastafarian/Jewish love story, is a doo-wop pastiche with lyrics that ask “who wrote the book of Job?”. And three of the backing musicians (producer Noah Georgeson, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic and drummer/keyboardist Greg Rogove) plus a fan, pulled at random from the crowd (Saturday, it’s Corinne from San Francisco, who played a lovely, South American inflected tune), are given a chance to perform.
Banhart is a perfect ringleader, sweetly childlike but lankily sexual — at times he comes off as Jonathan Richman with a working libido. A dandyish neo-hippy with flowing hair and beard (every member of his band is hirsute, making the stage look like a meeting of the heirs to the Smith Brothers fortune) heavily made up eyes, large rings on his fingers and wearing deep purple velour suit and a feathery voice that he accessorizes with a fluttery vibrato and a honeyed lower range. And while he made a game attempt rebound after the break, something was missing, and in the 45-minutes remaining the show never quite regained it’s equilibrium.
In today’s song-orientated, downloadable pop landscape, a musician forging an intense connection with his listeners is something to be admired, but Banhart needs to figure out how to control it. He nearly torpedoed what should have been a triumphant night.