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Devendra Banhart finds strength in vulnerability 

click to enlarge Devendra Banhart, with Black Belt Eagle Scout; Wednesday, Oct. 30, 8 p.m.; Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder; $26/adv, $31/door, 303-786-7030, bouldertheater.com - CHRISTIAN BERTRAND / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com
  • Devendra Banhart, with Black Belt Eagle Scout; Wednesday, Oct. 30, 8 p.m.; Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder; $26/adv, $31/door, 303-786-7030, bouldertheater.com

Listen to Devendra Banhart’s new album Ma, and you’ll find no shortage of dark imagery hiding in plain sight. Images of breadlines, of kidnappings, of supermarkets splattered with blood. Although the lyrics never make it explicit, many of them were triggered by events in present-day Venezuela, the country where Banhart spent most of his youth living with his mother.

Such lyrics may seem incongruous in the context of the album’s gentle acoustic arrangements, which draw upon the idyllic Big Sur setting in which it was recorded. But as Banhart has demonstrated in the past, music doesn’t have to hit you over the head to get under your skin.

“I’m definitely not a political person, but I am a human being living on this planet,” says the musician, who is donating a dollar from each ticket sold on his U.S. tour to World Central Kitchen, an organization that fights hunger and has so far served more than a million meals. “There’s tremendous suffering all over the world that we’re all very much aware of, if we just open up our computers or our phones, which most of us have open at all times. And I think that suffering has politicized everybody.”

Or as he puts it in the Donovan-like “Kantori Ongaku”: “All the death in my house makes it easy to shop online / Where the signal is strong and the tech flows like wine.”

If all that sounds a bit serious — Banhart is, after all, pushing 40 — it’s worth noting that the San Francisco art-school dropout hasn’t lost touch with the sense of playfulness that goes back to his days as the poster child for Northern California’s “freak-folk movement,” a term used by the press to describe the acid-tinged acoustic explorations of acts like Vetiver and Joanna Newsom.
In those days, Banhart had the appearance of a slightly less wild-eyed Charles Manson; you can find a video of him online, performing Manson’s strange little song “Your Home Is Where You’re Happy” at the 2006 Bonnaroo festival. In the spirit of ‘60s sharing, he would often invite a random audience member to come up onstage, borrow his guitar, and perform a song of their own.
Today, Banhart’s music still reflects his abiding love for the Brazilian Tropicália of the 1960s — Chico Buarque’s “Carolina” is the new album’s lone cover — as well as the British folk movement led by artists like Roy Harper and Nick Drake. “What I learned from their music,” he says, “is strength through vulnerability.”

He’s also collaborated with artists ranging from reclusive folk legend Vashti Bunyan to indie singer-songwriter Sasami Ashworth, who’s best known for her stint as the “synth queen” of the L.A. band Cherry Glazerr.

Lately, Banhart has taken to singing in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese, while continuing to modify his musical approach from album to album. Nearly all of the instruments on 2016’s Ape in Pink Marble are synthesizers, while Ma leans more toward acoustic guitars, strings, woodwinds and brass.

“I think the organic approach to this album was determined by the songs and the pastoral setting in which we recorded them,” he says. “We were in Northern California, surrounded by redwoods, by these beautiful cypress trees, and by the sound of the Pacific Ocean. I mean, the Pacific was really right there!”

So does Banhart ever miss hearing the term freak-folk? You can probably guess the answer.
“How could I miss something that I hear every day?” he says, conveying the wistful weariness that comes with being asked about it in every single interview. “How can I miss it, when my alarm just repeats the words ‘freak-folk, freak-folk,’ and that’s how I wake up?”

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