Man of La Mantra

The psychedelic folk of wandering minstrel Devendra Banhart

It's a bright, blustery December day in Santa Monica, and Devendra Banhart is sitting on the steps of the California Heritage Museum, a rustic building that houses historical artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surrounded by million-dollar beachfront condos, hip coffee joints, and a Gap outlet, the museum doesn't exactly fit into its landscape. For that matter, neither does Banhart.

The singer/songwriter sports a white button-down shirt, a patterned vest, and a tattered black sport coat; his dark, shoulder-length hair conspires with wispy facial scruff to hide a young, wonder-struck face. Thin and scraggly, he wears his clothes like a scarecrow.

Banhart's lengthily titled debut record, Oh Me Oh My...The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit, is equally out of step. Using little more than an old steel-string guitar and his arresting, alienlike voice, Banhart creates a surreal kind of folk music, full of odd symbols and cracked mantras. Recorded sporadically on lo-fi equipment, the songs feel like fragmentary sketches -- they often consist of only a few chords or notes, plucked in trance-inducing succession. Taken at face value, the album paints a picture of a crazy person, the kind of artist who might show up to an interview high on heroin, spouting vague, pretentious aphorisms.

Galen Pehrson
Galen Pehrson

Details

Devendra Banhart performs at "Smile" on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 10 p.m. at Hush Hush, 496 14th St. (at Guerrero), S.F.
Tickets are $5; call 241-9944.

He also plays with Guy Blakeslee and Vetiver on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 10 p.m. at Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market (at Sanchez), S.F.
Tickets are $5; call 861-5016 or go to www.cafedunord.com

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But as Banhart speaks softly to the museum's geriatric curator, whom he's befriended in a matter of seconds despite his shaggy appearance, it becomes clear that he's far from certifiable. As a matter of fact, he seems downright benevolent.

Whereas many of Banhart's peers are ironic, this 21-year-old is utterly sincere. Where they are transfixed by bombast and bling bling, Banhart is humble and gracious; where they are dispassionate and reserved, Banhart is invigorated. Such differences are what make Oh Me Oh Myso riveting, causing numerous critics to liken Banhart to '60s stars Syd Barrett and Marc Bolan. In a world of cynicism and angst, Banhart's plaintive backwoods jingles stick out like flares. While Oh Me Oh Mymay be challenging at times, Banhart's music -- along with his life and worldview -- makes a sore thumb like the Heritage Museum seem like just another Starbucks.


"The people of the town are these Indians," says Banhart about his work in progress, a book of poems and illustrations called The Thumbs Touch Too Much, in between sips of an Irish coffee at a small pub. "And the goddess of the town is this golden Negress -- which is like a big old black lady -- and the way she watches you is like a floating beard will come see you. So there's all these floating beards everywhere. And there's the ocean, and it gets into that whole thing. It'll be fun."

This is Banhart at his best, when he's just spilling his ideas out, a mile a minute. He refers to such images as "psychedelic jokes," valued both for their symbolic weight and their indefinite meaning. Such contradictions can make Banhart a tough nut to crack.

Banhart was born in Texas in 1981, and named by an Indian mystic whom his parents followed. When his folks divorced two years later, he moved with his mom to Caracas, Venezuela, where he was raised amidst the shanties and sweatshops. Though his family had enough money to stay above the poverty line, life wasn't easy.

"Venezuela was insane," says Banhart. "You don't go out after 8 because it's too dangerous. You don't wear nice sneakers because, while here you may get assaulted, there you just get killed."

When Banhart's mother remarried, his stepfather moved the family to Los Angeles. In the fall of 1998, having written songs since he was 12, Banhart left home to begin school at the San Francisco Art Institute, with a hefty scholarship. Though he was instantly disillusioned with the constraints of academic art, his environs took him in more productive directions.

Living in the lower Castro, he was tapped by his roommates -- a gay couple whom Banhart refers to as "Bob the Crippled Comic and Jerry Elvis" -- to play two classic songs at their wedding: the gospel hymn "How Great Thou Art" and Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender." Touched by the request, Banhart found himself newly inspired.

Shortly thereafter, he had a second epiphany. While vacationing in Bish Bash Falls, a state park in Massachusetts, Banhart and his girlfriend were quarreling about the Rolling Stones.

"The argument was about [the song] 'Street Fighting Man,'" he says. "And I'm like, 'That's bullshit. Mick Jagger wasn't fighting nobody.' And she was like, 'Well, how do you know? Maybe they just made it up.' And I was like, 'Well, I can make up a song about something!' And it turned out to be this little song ..."

Banhart proceeds to sing, limerick-style: "There once was a man who really loved salt/ So he tied his nose to the sea/ And then God came down from his silver throne/ And said, 'Honey, that water ain't free.'"

"That's when I realized I could write about anything I wanted," he adds casually. "It was like being constipated and then taking a suppository."

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