His hair long (but not excessively so), his face slightly obscured by five o’clock shadow (but not fully-bearded), and wearing jeans and a T-shirt underneath an open long-sleeve button-up, Devendra Banhart sang roughly half of his new What Will We Be (Warner Bros.) during a 90-minute set at Chicago’s Vic Theater Monday night that doubled as a nice overview of his work to date. Songs from 2005’s breakthrough, Cripple Crow, bookended the night (“Long Haired Child” opened; “Chinese Children” closed), with a few from 2007’s Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon and a couple deep cuts sprinkled in-between.
This being Banhart’s first tour supporting a major label record, he’s perhaps feeling nostalgic for his one-man-and-a-guitar beginnings. Early on, his backing band disappeared so he could revisit a couple vintage chestnuts in solo fashion: “The Charles C. Leary” (from his 2002 debut, Oh Me Oh My…) and a cover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” Alone with only his guitar as accompaniment, Banhart’s Jim Morrison-by-way-of-Lou Reed croon stood out, unencumbered by the overly generous reverb that was added to songs earlier in the set.
The backing musicians left Banhart alone on stage a few times, emphasizing that even though he’s been making full-band records since Crow, he remains fundamentally a solo artist.
He played “Little Yellow Spider,” “A Sight To Behold,” and “Hows about Telling a Story” on his own, then later stumbled through Smokey‘s “I Remember.” Sitting at an organ, he stopped abruptly during the first verse and exclaimed, “This thing sounds so fuckin’ bad!” Crowd exhortations pushed him to continue — “Your music is beautiful!” cooed one female audience member.
The dude himself was enchanting. He gamely took female concertgoers’ whistles and catcalls, engaged in boozy banter (he called it, “Lager-ia”), and paid warm tribute to opener Tim Kinsella of Joan of Arc (“Tim Kinsella is one of my heroes”). When an overwhelmingly female group of dancers spontaneously took over the stage during set-closer “Rats,” Banhart had the look of a man clearly enjoying himself.
Despite his solo forays, Banhart clearly dug playing with his musical co-conspirators, a group that included Priestbird’s Greg Rogrove on drums and Little Joy’s Rodrigo Amarante on guitar and organ. “Everyone here is my favorite songwriter,” he said, before paying tribute by letting his bandmates perform some of their own songs. The propulsive power pop of “No One Better’s Sake,” Banhart’s self-professed favorite Little Joy song, was a particular highlight.
So, to sum up: no wanky jamming, no psychedelic freakouts, no faux-shamanistic shenanigans. Banhart even kept his shirt on (until the encore, anyway). This was conduct unbecoming for the supposed general of the freak-folk army. You suspect that’s exactly how he likes it.