Sweaty, sticky for the last three days in the Indian-Summer heat, and I can’t take anymore. Even though day has become night, the humidity still zaps all excitement, all anticipation from those who preoccupy the small black Volkswagen mobile that cruises down Katella Ave. Tonight at the House of Blues in Anaheim would be the third time crossing paths with Devendra Banhart. A long time ago, stories from other mouths implanted a vision of the musician; an imagination run rampant, a single guitar, and an audience of unblinking eyes that left my mind whirling. One day, I would have my own Devendra story to tell.
First meeting: Love-In. The Valentine’s Day inspired underground warehouse-party lingered just outside downtown Los Angeles. Devendra wore white fur and kept to himself in the midst of hundreds of faces. Instead of celebrating, his focus was to play. Unfortunately, his performance was a foreign one. There was no folk music. No beauty. No intimate musical experience. Just Devendra, dressed in a royal green and purple Knight’s costume, rapping over cheesy electro beats. This horrible techno music filled the high ceilings of the dimly lit warehouse, and a self-absorbed image of Devendra drove the crowd away before the set came to a close.
The Coachella Valley Festival intertwined us yet again. This time, the man strumming his guitar, wearing vibrant vintage shorts and loafers appeared like the man who once wrote “Little Yellow Spider.” As he began his performance, Devendra was overwhelmed with giving thanks. Diverse people, a gathering inspired by music, a sunset spraying light from rolling hills; he couldn’t ask for a more beautiful moment. But an intoxicated crowd of sweating youth begged for pop songs, for the sound of “Lover.” Although he refused the crowd that specific trendy track, the rest were bouncy, and played loudly by his band. Unable to focus on anything but the debauchery around us, we lost any possibility to experience a heartfelt moment. The sun slowly lowered itself behind the golden mounds in the distance as we exited the Gobi tent. Again, we had missed him.
Weave through the parking lot, the tourists, the churros, the Lego store, the Monorail, the restaurants. We trek like ants in search of home base. Arrive at the House of Blues, awake and bustling with fellow concertgoers. Wait in line, receive an armband, get waved over by a metal detector, and it’s up the stairs into the upper balcony.
Local band, The Growlers, already have the venue packed with a sea of swaying adolescent bodies. From the corner of the dark wooden banister, I manage to find lead singer, Brooks Neilsen, wiggling and jiggling between the obstructions of bobbing silhouette heads. In their month of August residency at the Echo, the Growlers took on a few hundred at a time. Tonight, they face an army that has treaded their way through Downtown Disney to see a show. From above, the crowd swirls as the boys mesmerize the inebriated with the hollow twanging of a guitar during “What It Is.” Neilsen’s eerie voice recites from “Wandering Eyes.” Each word floats in the dim light, “I’ll tell you I’ll never leave you, if you believe me, then it’s your fault.” They hold the gaze of their listeners. They lure more shadowed figures towards the spectacle on stage. They have prepared the audience for a trip with Devendra.
No one fights for a spot in the front. It’s no use at this point; the crowd is packed tight as sardines. Confined by surrounding people, the chit-chatter, the moisture in the air. The stifle from summer heat begins to return. But the uneasiness felt is not important in a moment such as this. Devendra is soon to appear from behind the deep colors of the quilted curtain. We must press on.
Thick fabric lifts, cheers fly into the air, and vision of the stage is clear. Devendra enters the scene from stage right, adorning a bowtie, white button-up shirt with rolled sleeves, and a scruffy complexion. His lanky body moves with a humble embarrassment as he stretches his legs toward the microphone. Strap on an acoustic, and he faces his audience alone, surrounded in blue light. “1, 2, 3, 4…” he begins with soft picking of the guitar. In this moment, the cheers of the crowd are muffled. All focus is on Devendra, moving his lips to “Little Yellow Spider.” Finishing the simple song, he then transitions to “The Body Breaks.” Eyes closed, a delicate aura surrounding, voice trembling. Don’t blink. Not as he sings, “The body burns, yeah the body burns strong, until mine is with yours, then mine with burn on.” Spiritual smoke burns from these words, from the stage, moving upward, wrapping in ringlets with the dusty blue light. Tonight Devendra has found comfort and acceptance in Anaheim. Tonight he has the chance to share his true self with a collection of eager listeners.
Lights change, and Devendra softly picks at the electric guitar he now holds in his hands. The band tip-toes into view, but each take time finding their specific spot for the evening. Melody continues slowly as each puzzle piece falls into place. Heat rises as music bursts into “Carmensita.” Hundreds of voices sing the foreign words at the top of their lungs. But after a handful of songs, the need to detach from the crowd, to find fresh air takes over. Slither through the human obstacles, step past the dance floor threshold, and wind up the stairs. Perhaps there is a chance to work my way in close to the handrail. On the right, bodies ruin any chance to find a window of vision. In the center is the same. On the left, a 30-something Hispanic security guard blocks off the section. Take a loop through the outside smoking patio, and quickly end up near the television screen mounted over the watchman’s head. Beams of color dance behind the perimeter of the screen. On television, the lighting radiates over Devendra and his band in a deeper color than on the stage below.
Pulling out a handwritten letter, our host takes a moment to tell a story. He had received a note from a fan, asking for him to play a particular song. This song belonged to two lovers, and they would use it as “a song to bring you home,” whenever they parted. Guitar strings bounce as the plea from the lover cries, “Put me in your suitcase, let me help you pack, cause you’re never coming back.” The entire audience cannot help but sigh as the band plays, “At the Hop.” In these moments, the security guard nearby has felt compassionate, and subtly releases his watch. Nylon tape belonging to the barricade zips back into its black shell, and the man in his official yellow polo sets the unconnected bases aside. After one final glance about the area, he walks away.
After a moment of keeping a lookout, it’s time to slip into the half-empty section. The view is still tough. Propping up on knees on a nearby barstool, I watch a dancing Devendra pop in and out of view. Quick thrusts of twanging guitar are set ablaze. Bomp--bomp, bomp--bomp, the drums crash. The beat of “Long Haired Child,” is recognizable in an instant, and the crowd begins bopping. Devendra begins slowly, curling into a ball, then morphs into an orangutan dancing in place on stage. The guitar players match Devendra’s playful energy with expressions of their own. All sound suddenly cuts before the song has finished. Silence from the stage. Wait, wait. And lyrics burst, “But when my baby slips out my mama’s womb, we’re gonna enter a new life, enter a new life, that’s for shooore.” The crowd squirms and offers their own back-up vocals. With a loud crash of the symbols, and an echoing “shoo-bop, shoo-bop,” the song finishes its last note, and the audience erupts in cheers.
As the show rolls on, my eye is on the roped-off balcony entrance to the right. Security is watching, is opening the velvet rope as a few people come and go up and down the three stairs. In the top row, near the center of the back row, are a few empty barstools resting at the base of the handrail-crowd. Creeping to the corner where the rope is attached, elbows rest on the deeply colored wooden rail. From this angle Devendra is more visible as he advances through the rest of the energized set. We have experienced, “This Beard is for Siobhan.” We have absorbed every word of, “A Sight to Behold.” We have listened to the Jewish love story of, “Shabop Shalom.” And it is time for Devendra to finally say goodnight.
As a few of the rich ticket-holders exit their seats in the center balcony, the security guard leans in close. Go now, sit at the stools, if anyone comes back, move down out of the way. Speechless, I nod and smile, slipping through the small opening of the retracted rope. In place, dead center. A rush of excitement explodes from the crowd as Devendra appears yet again, this time without bowtie and shirt. Shakers in hand, monotone movement, he starts slowly, “…If I lived in China, I’d have some Chinese children.” A few lines of lyrics to tease, and the melody morphs into something else. Shakers now ablaze in his hands, Devendra cries out, “From sucking on my mama’s breast to when they lay my soul to rest, I’m a child.” The fellow children of the crowd are singing the anthem of “I Feel Just Like a Child,” dancing, twisting, clapping in the final moments they have left with Devendra during his encore. Lights dim on stage, and he gives a sheepish wave and a smile as he makes his official exit off stage.
Gather final moments, slide off the barstool, and down the front steps of the establishment. A splash of cooling evening air refreshes the body. Downtown Disney is no longer bustling. We reconvene at the paisley-shaped fountain near the ticket booth, and begin to retrace our footsteps to the parking lot. A buzz is in the air, the excitement and satisfaction radiating off everyone who had witnessed the performance. Finally, a moment to meet the man who gave, “This Is the Way.” To see the movements of his face, his eyes closed, true emotion being emptied into every word. Of course an element of Spectacle had been present during the show; blinding lights and an expensive establishment full of corporate advertising. But the collection of pure moments of admiration outweighed any bit of the show that seemed tainted. An experience to be remembered. A story of Devendra to finally tell.