Suprisingly, the freakiest people here tonight aren't necessarily the ones onstage…

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Devendra Banhart : Shepherds Bush Empire, London, Thurs, October 21


Devendra Banhart : Shepherds Bush Empire, London, Thurs, October 21

Being respected and admired is one thing, but when people start calling you a mystic and a shaman, you have two options: a) lead a cult and go mad in a remote compound in the desert; or b) thumb your nose at the very suggestion. Thankfully Devendra Banhart has chosen the latter option.

Granted, he strolls onstage in a dress that would pass for national costume in some parts of Eastern Europe, but those who come to hear the ravings of some tree-dwelling half-mad druid go home sorely disappointed. After dedicating the show to the (real-life) Bulgarian Medics Solidarity Project, he launches into a beautiful ‘Little Yellow Spider’. He fools around with it, elongating vowels for laughs, demonstrating an admirable lack of pretension. After this brief solo spot he’s joined by his band Queens Of Sheba, a hirsute folk supergroup of sorts, featuring members of regular muckers Vetiver and Little Wings, most of whom could expect a podium place in a Grandaddy lookalike competition.

Eccentric scrawly folk ballads are transformed. ‘The Good Red Road’, a spindly acoustic ramble on record, bounds along here like something Paul Simon would have knocked up in the mid-’80s when he was embracing world music. ‘Roots…’ is rendered in the style of some ’60s psychedelic blues-rock outfit. The number of long-haired topless guys waving and hollering onstage only adds to this impression.

In the best possible way it’s more rehearsal than performance. Band members dropping their instruments mid-song for a crafty fag and a chat behind the drum riser, Banhart himself surveying the chaos with obvious amusement. It’s hard not to smile at the spectacle. He even manages to pull off a 20-minute Brazilian-tinged reggae jam, and there’s not many artists you could say that about. Finally he ponders aloud: “I don’t know if it’s fun for anyone else, but this is so much fun for us.” Don’t worry, Devendra, we’re with you all the way.

Julian Poidevin