Man of La Mantra

The psychedelic folk of wandering minstrel Devendra Banhart

Thus began Banhart's days as a wandering minstrel. When he returned to San Francisco, he began playing anywhere that would have him, be it an Ethiopian restaurant, an Irish pub, or Du Nord's weekly "Monday Night Hoot."

"We had to pretend like he was just helping us with equipment and then sneak him in," says Eric Shea, host of the "Hoot." "He was too young to get into the club."

In the summer of 2000, Banhart dropped out of art school and moved to Paris. There, he was discovered by the owner of a small club, who chose him to open shows for indie rock bands. All the while he was recording songs, both on a borrowed four-track and on a friend's answering machine.

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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Moving back to the United States in the fall, Banhart bounced between San Francisco and Los Angeles. At a gig at the Fold in L.A., Banhart was doing a sound check when Siobhan Duffy overheard his set. A lover of old bluegrass and folk music, Duffy is also a close personal friend of Michael Gira, the one-time frontman for New York gloom-rock legends Swans and current owner of Young God Records.

"She couldn't believe it," says Gira of Duffy's reaction. "So [Banhart] gave her a CD-R, and I listened to it and had the same response. His voice is so unique, his songwriting is just amazing."

After deciding to sign the young singer, Gira sifted through Banhart's 70 home recordings in an attempt to shape one cohesive album. "It was just a nightmare 'cause [the songs are] all so good, they're all so distinct," says Gira. "So I just tried to make something that had some dynamics, some variation."

Clocking in at just over 50 minutes, Oh Me Oh My is like 22 pieces of a giant puzzle -- profound yet elusive glimpses of a truly odd mind.

Each song features Banhart and his guitar, with the occasional handclap or sound of a car driving by outside. Brief numbers like "Make It Easier" and "Tell Me Something" are like haiku, whereas four-minute songs like "Michigan State" and "Pumpkin Seeds" feel more like sonnets.

Banhart's rickety voice doesn't so much appear on the record as haunt it. He can reduce it down to a terry-cloth whisper on "The Charles C. Leary," or jack it up to a banshee screech for "Certainly Are Nice People." On "Lend Me Your Teeth" he makes his vocals dance implike around a pagan campfire fanned by his fiery finger-picking.

What makes this collection an X-ray where others like it are mere Polaroids is the rawness of the recordings. Banhart throws his uncensored thoughts and feelings onto tape like they're hot potatoes. Recurring symbols such as body parts and snails mean something, it's just never really clear what -- and Banhart doesn't feel as if he has to explain.

"I don't even know how to start talking about it," he says. "I don't even think I should, because I wrote a song so that I wouldn't have to."

Everything's up for interpretation, such as the lyrics, "The steps to the temple/ Are the breasts made of puddles," from the song "The Thumbs Touch Too Much," or lines like, "Well if my snail has my favorite slow/ Then my cold has my favorite snow," from "Michigan State." Yet Banhart insists that he doesn't just pull this stuff out of his ass, something he's often accused of.

"It's not stream of conscious at all," he says. "I've got piles and piles of [journals], and I just go through them and go through them, and I'll get maybe two lines out of the whole fucking thing, but they'll be two good lines that mean something to me and maybe they mean something to someone else."

Banhart is most often associated with volatile singer/songwriters like the aforementioned Bolan and Barrett, as well as Karen Dalton and Daniel Johnston. In other words, listeners place him in that category of "crazy musician," the kind of person who warrants an R-rated biopic. These assessments are not entirely unfounded -- in addition to his lyrics, he's also known for his inspired, improvisational performances, during which he often slips into a trance -- but they only serve to obscure the beauty that Banhart achieves. Like such great past steel-string guitarists as John Fahey and Robbie Basho, Banhart is a psychedelic alchemist capable of turning a simple arpeggio and a few disjointed sentences into something alive with feeling. The only reason his music seems strange is because it's so damn rare.

"He's not preoccupied with dressing his music up to make it sound like a crazy person," says Eric Shea. "He's just doing what he knows how to do."

What Banhart knows how to do is make artful music worth mulling over and arguing about with your friends, music that you can rediscover each time you listen. Like two of his idols, Delta blues legend Mississippi John Hurt and British folk singer Vashti Bunyan, Banhart simply shares his vision in as unadulterated a way as possible. It's as if he were receiving transmissions from some other world -- a world in which he fits just right -- and he's turning up the volume for all to hear.

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