Devendra Banhart / Espers

  • London
  • United Kingdom
  • Koko
  • 2005-08-11

With a massive sound system built to play to thousand of people, Espers’ set took on a totally different complexion to that of the previous night’s. The steady, acoustic guitar strumming that grounded their meandering psychedelic jamming, now became a churning doom riff. Finishing with “Byss and Abyss”, their ‘hit’ that features on the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation, they used this to full effect. The rumbling power of the guitar and cello was supported by the constant hiss of crash cymbals being hit with timpani sticks, and deep, rolling toms; the doom provided an unusual, but strangely fitting foundation for a wig-out prog-folk improv session — based on this, the world definitely needs more doom-folk.

I’d seen Devendra Banhart play briefly once before, when he accompanied a Little Wings solo set for one song. After that tantalising glimpse of his live abilities, I was really excited about seeing him here.

…the band dragged the performance down overall

He played his whole set apart from a handful of songs with a four-piece band, the majority being members of Vetiver. I quite like Vetiver. but unfortunately their accompaniment here consisted almost entirely a flat-four drumbeat, and a guitar hitting straight, staccato chords on each beat, making everything in their path sound like the bit leading into the chorus of “Take me Out” by Franz Ferdinand. Although the extra singers gave the strength of his voice a boost, and the harmonies were definitely a nice inclusion, the band dragged the performance down overall.

Devendra is a performer who is able to slow down or speed bits up, to change bits around, and go off on little flourishes on a whim. The presence of the band stopped him doing this to a great extent — the rigid timing needed when playing with several people meant that every song was played through properly, from start to finish; the subtleties of his playful guitar picking, and hypnotising voice didn’t get a chance to show through.

The band did have one moment of glory, which was a cover of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill, which they pulled off so well it sounded like it had been written as a folk song. During “At the Top” he changed one of the lines to ‘Isn’t it nice to sell out,’ (a self-deprecating reference to the song being used in a recent advert for Cathedral City cheese,) which brought a cheer from the crowd. However, the joke lingered on for another few minutes, so that when during a link he was trying to make to the following song, (which presumably had the name of a food in the title):

Devendra: OK, what’s everyone’s favourite food?

Crowd: CHEESE!

Devendra: “Hey, man, enough with the lactose intolerance, OK?

Near the end, he played “Will is My Friend” and “Little Yellow Spider” on his own, and was immediately set free — in “Little Yellow Spider” he broke off from his guitar; his quavering voice held a note, which then rose, and soared until it was a shriek, then came back down to earth again, and he carried on with the song. It was that sort of excitement that I was really hoping for from the whole set. In general, I enjoyed listening to the songs; they sounded pretty similar to the album versions, but with a fuller sound lent by the number of people on stage. It was just disappointing that, apart from a few teasing minutes, the gig wasn’t all it could have been.

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