Devendra Banhart / Joanna Newsom – Vaudeville Mews (Des Moines, IA)
On an evening thick with heat and shuffling storm clouds, Des Moines became an unlikely site for what is increasingly being recognized as a folk revival in the new, weird America. A standing-room crowd had accumulated before a note was played in anticipation of Devendra Banhart, who headlined the evening, but it was opening act Joanna Newsom who may very well have stolen the show.
Newsom’s voice has been likened to Bjork’s, but a few minutes of listening to the precision of her inflection and range of her tone reveals this as a surface comparison. Accompanied only by her harp, played lovingly and without irony, she entranced the audience with the graceful lyricism and peculiar lexicon of each disarmingly simple song, her vocal personae seamlessly shifting from child to witch to wise old sage.
Her performance was playful and tender in turns: She coyly swaggers in songs like “The Book Of Right-On” (“I killed my dinner with karate/kick ’em in the face, taste the body”) and pulls the breath from you in “This Side Of The Blue” and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie”. Somehow this all happens without schmaltz, pretension or ornament, which is astonishing considering the enormous harp in the middle of the room.
Banhart began his set with praise for Newsom, acknowledging the challenge of following such an opener. His situation wasn’t helped by the loss of his set list or his insistence on standing for much of his performance despite a guitar strap that refused to stay attached. Nevertheless, Banhart was an utterly absorbing performer, disappearing inside his songs as soon as he began to play them.
Most of his set was taken from his latest album, Rejoicing In The Hands. He led off with one of its strongest tracks, “This Is The Way”; its lucid yet mysterious lines (“These are the flames that drown the water/This is the sound that swims inside me/This circle sound is all around me”) both exemplify and reflect upon the peculiar appeal of his work.
Banhart’s voice, like Newsom’s, is an entirely different breed from the standard timbres associated with the singer-songwriter genre, ranging from a throaty growl to a trembling falsetto. Selections as disparate as “The Charles C. Leary” and “The Body Breaks” illustrated the striking breadth of both Banhart’s voice and his construction of songs.
Inviting Newsom back to the stage (along with members of the band Vetiver, which had played first on the bill), Banhart finished with a loose, foot-stomping “family jam” which reinforced that while the eccentricity of these performers has brought them attention, it is the unrestrained joy they take in the pleasures of their tightly-crafted songs that will sustain them.