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ISSUE 121 VOL 1 PUBLISHED 9/21/2007

Singer matures with full band

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, September 21, 2007

If you didn't catch Devendra Banhart at First Avenue last Saturday, weep. Banhart was absolutely fantastic, the epitome of a folk artist capable of re-inventing himself without losing his identity. He is the embodiment of a songwriter capable of going with the flow while shaping and melding his experiences into soulful, accessible Latin-folk-pop gems.

The songs Banhart played mostly came from his new album, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, out September 25th. The album marks a departure from his freak-folk roots. Banhart's Latin-influenced, but still distinctly American folk sound that permeates the whole album. It's exactly what his career needed at this point to keep from going stale, and the new material invigorates his live show. I especially liked "Shabop Shalom," the story of a boy who falls in love with a Rabbi's daughter. The song has a great sense of humor, as well as a robust, balanced sound.

Banhart's live show hinges on his jittery, yet somehow smooth, energy. Banhart alternated between sounding like a salsa-style Johnny Cash and a folked-out Elvis. If that doesn't paint a vivid picture of his performance for you, imagine the smoothest voice you know, infused with a dramatic undulation and howling enthusiasm, all the while holding onto a sense of tranquility.

And I couldn't get away with not mentioning his back up band, Zpiritual Boner. According to Banhart, as many Zs as necessary can be added to the beginning of the name.

They were the best band I've ever seen backing a solo artist. Even Banhart's older material benefited from the full sound provided by Boner's folk prowess. Culled from several well-regarded folk bands, Zpiritual Boner's sound proved remarkably versatile, switching effortlessly between mid-tempo rock songs infused with salsa rhythms and catchy Spanish phrases and mellow, silly folk songs.

At every show, Banhart asks the audience if anyone has written any songs lately, and then brings a respondent on stage. Saturday night's lucky winner was Dina Rae. She ended up being a surprisingly solid performer, especially considering as she went from being out in the crowd to onstage fairly suddenly.

The whole set was pretty magical. To quote the drunk girl behind me who spent the whole night ensuring that no one could enjoy the show in peace, "This is so beautiful. I'm dying." And later on, "I'm dead. I'm crying and I'm dead." I can assure you she was actually none of those things, but her fanatically emotional sentiment holds, I think.

However, openers Rio en Medio did not fare so well. To illustrate what exactly I didn't like about them, I'm going to provide a summary of every opening band you will ever see in three neat categories:

Category: Good band that happens to be opening for a bigger seller Description: This well-respected group could have done a headlining show at the smaller venue down the street, but they aren't. Your reaction: "I saw Sonic Youth with the Flaming Lips. It was so awesome that my brain melted and dripped out my ears!" Notice that Sonic Youth isn't opening for the Flaming Lips, I've given them a more colleague-colleague type relationship.

Category: "Opening" Opening Bands Description: This band is OK. They eat up time before the set starts and keep everyone decently entertained. But you probably won't buy their CD and flaunt the new musical gem you found. Your reaction: "Rio en Medio opened for Devendra Banhart Saturday and they did fine." A year and a half later, you hear a song by this band on the radio and wonder where you've heard that voice before.

Category: Why Has This Band Been Inflicted Upon Me? Description: Who booked these guys? Are they labelmates? Half the audience has gone out for a smoke, and the other half is chit-chatting so loudly that you - thankfully - can't here the audio abomination on stage. Your Reaction: "Why would my favorite band do this to us?" followed by weeks, if not years, of denial that such a good band actually had such a terrible opener.

Now, If you read carefully, you may have surmised that Rio en Medio is a supremely mediocre band.

Musically, Rio, a pseudonym for singer Danielle Stech-Homsy, was pretty middling - a true exemplification of the "opening" opening band. Sadly, Rio en Medio sounds exactly the same as every other artist who combines impersonal mechanical sounds with simplistic folk melodies.

What made Rio en Medio stand out was the video playing in the background during their show. It starred the multi-instrumentalist who was backing Stech-Homsy. It featured said multi-instrumentalist digging in the sand. And then switched to a shot of him having black stuff poured on his face. And some white pine cone beetles. And a dude wearing a big plush cat head and playing hopscotch.

However, at the end of the night, not even dudes smeared with viscous black fluid and out-of-focus pine cones projected on a screen could mar the glory that is Devendra Banhart.

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