I spent last week carrying boxes, furniture, and all manner of impossibly heavy objects up and down the stairs. Moving is a boring, painful piece of business with many lows and few highs beyond the potential of a quick lesson from gravity. Monotonous labor like this requires a fun goal to look forward to. For me, it was a chance to witness the controlled chaos of Devendra Banhart’s folksy brand of ADHD freak rock at Chicago’s Park West on Friday night. Quite a way to unwind after so much manual output. For you see, Banhart is a man taken with strange obsessions: fantasy relationships, beautiful children, 11-century nuns who speak directly to God. The prospect of hearing him get weird with live versions of such angsty gems was enough to keep me marching, climbing, and ignoring the fire in my calves.
One never knows what to expect when Banhart gets in front of a crowd. He’s a natural showman with a characteristic rockstar magnetism. But Banhart took humble steps onto the stage Friday and opened with a melodious, solo version of “The Body Breaks”. How appropriate. Banhart maintained this even-keeled, one-man outing for the first few songs, and traipsed through lovely renditions of “NiÃ±o” and “Little Yellow Spider”. But the energy in Park West shot up as the whole band appeared on stage for the tripped out musings of “FÃ¼r Hildegard von Bingen”. That’s also when everyone started dancing.
The freakadelic singer-songwriter poured on the heartfelt, oddball ditties, switching back and forth between solo work and full musical accompaniment. A highlight was Banhart stripping off his cardigan sweater and gyrating like a creepy, shopping mall Elvis impersonator during a rousing, Americana-styled performance of “Little Boys”, which is a tongue-in-cheek tune about marrying children. Banhart continued these silly meditations with “Long Haired Child” – a follicle protest number off 2005’s Cripple Crow – before busting out the EspaÃ±ol for “Mi Negrita”.
These jumps back and forth between tempos, languages, and moods made the show exciting and lively, which is just the sort of ointment one needs to cure the burn of third degree boredom. What comes next: a toe tapper, another solo, a mischievous soliloquy? All were fair game and Banhart segued with ease, proving himself a skilled flamenca maestro, whose throaty vibrato could still tug heartstrings during “Bad Girl” and “Seahorse”. Judging by the at-capacity crowd’s reaction, “Never Seen Such Good Things”, “Daniel” and “Your Fine Petting Duck”, all off Mala, were also welcome additions to a live catalogue that counted more than 20 songs this night.
Grace behind him, Banhart thanked Chicago before night’s end. Watching a performer pour so much of himself into a busy gig and make it successfully out the other end is a sight to behold. It also reinforced the lesson that it’s best to leave real work to the professionals. Guess next time I’ll just hire movers.