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WHISKEY, ASH & CINDERS
:: Devendra Banhart :: (and some guy called George) ::
08 September 2006 / Academy 2 / Manchester
By Lauren Strain

Devendra Banhart has a lot of beard these days. His lithe frame is hung with varied textures and treasures, rags and riches draped from slender shoulders. Beneath a silken, embroidered waistcoat peeks a billowing gypsy shirt; around his neck are gently slung leathers and fraying strings with totems, talismans and carvings swinging on their curves, like pendulums. His belt is tightly wound and snug about his hips, studded with stones; his skin sketched with swirling tattoos, two above his kidneys and something like a lace of barbed wire in a delicate line against the inside of his arm by the soft skin of the elbow. He wolf-howls, as form of hello.

There’s something mysterious in his aura, like he’s a pied piper of folk communes, leading waifs and strays to the fire, drumming out skewed stories – and, indeed, he spontaneously stops mid-set to ask “So, you’ve all got your songs, right?”, as if it’s the most expected thing in the world for someone to just leap up eagerly in front of a couple a’ hundred of someone else’s fans, with no soundcheck and no idea what the guitar’s like or the microphone and no remote nervousness or trepidation, or anything...but hang on, he’s right – this IS the most natural thing! On climbs a boy from the front row with trusting, furtive, Jeff Buckley eyes and a sensitive face, his dreadlocked hair wrapped in a scarf. Fiddling with the tuning on Devendra’s cherry guitar, he starts thrumming a pulsating, earthy rhythm. Slowly, then confidently, his voice is a hum of feeling. The room rises into choruses of claps and, after a few minutes of skulking in the smoky shadows with a cigarette, Banhart sits down and begins to brush the cymbals, improvising and nodding along with approval. George From Manchester, as he is affectionately known to the citizens of Academy 2 this fine evening, blinks and glances behind to see where this hushed, supportive sound is coming from; his look is one of gratitude, surprise, happiness. Everyone’s so appreciative, so involved – yeah, this is what music’s all about, guys! Communication, collectivity, collaboration; and you sure can feel ‘em throbbing through the veins and air of this gathering. At first, it takes us aback; within seconds, we’re at home, relaxed.

It’s all so intimate and familial, even though Devendra’s playing an electric and backed fully by support band Vetiver, without a withering acoustic version of anything in sight. Which is quite a revelation, really, considering I’d last seen him play whilst sat cross-legged on a magic carpet wearing a red poncho with its hood down to his chin, being persistently reclusive and downright awkward for Jools Holland’s poor cameraman, lumped with the job of attempting to capture a bit of his face for the telly. But tonight, there’s none of that obstinacy – instead, he’s charged, energetic and laughing openly, stood in the spotlight, swaying with his lilting gait, drinking whiskey and chatting profusely as though this is how he always does it, maaaaan.

His voice is deep, broad and warm – like red blood and burnt wood. There’s less of the nasal, alarming falsetto than usual but, although this is rather wistfully missed in places, it’s all the more exciting when he does do it, suddenly cracking into a high-pitched yelp like a forest animal or keening like a bird. His expressions are pretty exciting, too. Check out that mouth swivel, where it shifts to one side of his face completely on the elongated “ooo”s, as though he’s trying to chew his ear off; clock how wide it throws itself back for the desperate yaps, revealing all the teeth, or the raspy snake’s grin when he sings through them on ‘Little Yellow Spider’.

After an uproar for a second encore and a night full of humid, hearty tales, this is one crowd left both satiated and hungry; like we’ve had a taste of some liberated wilderness and want to join the band of explorers. In the glow of a fire just quenched, with ash and cinders flickering in the air, we wander out into the streets on a hunt for more...


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