Devendra Banhart, Grand Ballroom- 9/27Akron/Family, Bowery Ballroom- 9/30Animal Collective, Webster Hall-10/1
NYC ROLL-TOP: The New Hippie Revolution
The New Hippie Revolution rolled through Manhattan in early autumn, when the beardos in Devendra Banhart & the Spiritual Boner, Akron/Family, and Animal Collective plied their craft. Each revived the sensibility in a slightly different way: Southern California mist-dreamers, the cosmic kids down the hall, and urban DIYers.
Banhart came first, at the Grand Ballroom on September 27th. His band appeared to be organized into loose hierarchy according to various hirsuited properties, Banhart himself having the longest hair and the woolliest beard, with each other musician sporting some combination. Banhart's hippieness is in emulation of the pot-hazed escapism that flew into the Los Angeles hills with record company riches in the early '70s, so much so that the Venezuelan-born songwriter even recorded his new album deep in Laurel Canyon.
Often, the songs from Banhart's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon emphasize, well, gettin’ high, stayin’ high, and being free. "If you get high, you might see me floating by," he promised early in the set on "So Long Old Bean," a shimmering Hawaiian fantasia. "There’s only one way to shine, and it’s trying to live freely," he emphasized on "Freely." On "Seahorse," he combined the themes: "Well, I’m high, and I’m happy, and I’m free."
In performance, the 26-year old played up the unity of the outfit, announcing various bandnames (Spiritual Boner, Celestial Pesto), had all six musicians singing, and played the neutrally folky songs of several members. When they came to "Seahorse" — on album, an eight-minute mini-epic with a "Take 5"-like groove that teases a jaaaaaam — they stuck entirely to the script, almost to the second. Later, the leader gave a speech about how everybody creates in his own way, as with food or paints, but the tools available this evening were only mere musical instruments, so did anybody have a recent song he or she wanted to come up and play? A girl named Dana scuttled up, donned Banhart’s guitar, and played a song — quite good, really, at least in the vocabulary of half-whispered folk, with one of the multi-instrumentalist beardos joining her on drums.
Akron/Family — who played at the Bowery Ballroom on the 30th — shed most of their half-whispered folk some time ago, trading it for electrical freak-outs, full-melt segues, and perhaps a little too much reliance on audience participation. Following the departure of guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof, the Pennsylvania-bred trio expanded to a seven-piece to tour behind Love Is Simple, their eighth album (depending if you count tour-only releases), with their ninth — a CD-R recorded with the new lineup — available at the merch table. The Akrons made the most of their new members, turning in a show that was as masterful for its concepts as its execution, capturing a vibe — that elusive midway point between hippie and hipster — that is increasingly crowded.
Over the course of the set, the band recalled a time when being a jamband was an approach to music, not a genre, and rolled out the creative set-makers to prove it. Many came in the form of participatory segues, getting the audience to snap or clap or sing or hum or whistle along while the band switched gears beneath them (a trick semi-overplayed). There was Ween-like self-sabotage and mammoth choruses ("Phenomena"), multi-sectioned epics ("There's So Many Colors"), songs split in two ("Of All The Things"), an inside joke about Top Gun that unfolded into a chanting of the theme and a segue into "Raising the Sparks," and a pair of covers of Grateful Dead covers (a Pigpen-style "Turn On Your Lovelight" and a ramshackle "I Know You Rider," with a brief jam on "Morning Dew" preceding the latter).
For all of this, though, the band exhibited none of the pure corniness that has made so many listeners abandon groove-obsessed jambands (give or take an unnecessary hip-hop/vocal jam at the end of "Ed Is A Portal" and some funk thang that sounded like the Ominous Seapods circa 1993, and not really in a good way). Instead, the meat of the set was dark, two-drummer driven psychedelia, glued with chaotic improvisations, field recordings of crickets, and a dozen other gestures that kept the music interesting long after one might ordinarily tune out. While there's something a bit over-the-top about the bands Buddhist leanings, it is — so to speak — a vision that demands to be heard. Despite their non-adherence to the almighty groove, they still made dance music.
It's a crying shame that the Bowery Presents promoters booked Akron/Family the same night as Animal Collective, who sold out two nights at the much larger Webster Hall, and sucked away the longhairs from the Akrons. Though the Collective's new Strawberry Jam is a delightful and original confection, and their previous albums (by turns) adventurous, frustrating, and gorgeous, the band’s music remains so abstract that their popularity is a constant surprise.
By all accounts, the October 1st gig went better than the previous evening, which ended without an encore after a night of monitor malfunctions. Performing with three-quarters of their ever-rotating members — David Portner (aka Avey Tare), Brian Weitz (aka Geologist), and Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) — the trio did away with a traditional rhythm section, jettisoning the bass entirely and giving Avey Tare and Panda Bear partial kits, which they played without kick drums, only occasionally, standing up. Occasionally, Avey Tare picked up a guitar, but it was pretty much an exception, rather than a rule. Without the rhythm section, Animal Collective had to work twice as hard to engage the crowd. Though the music often seemed detached as a result, they still often succeeded with it, at least in terms of genuine interest from the crowd, which included just as many shirtless googly-eyed seekers as arm-locked hipsters.
Pure urban hippies (who occasionally jam on the "We Bid You Goodnight"), there was little improvisation in the band's set. With the three huddled behind banks of knobbed boxes and keyboards, much of the drama came in various head-bobs while they cued drum machine grooves, the music more dislocating than psychedelic, the common adjective to describe it. Only skinny Avey Tare, who roamed the stage like a Beastie Boy, demonstrated any charisma as he hunched over a mic and delivered in a multi-octave sing-song that sounds like often mutiple voices on record. In one place, the trio sounded as if they were accelerating into what might be a dance groove, the crowd swelling and bouncing in anticipation, only to pull back into deconstruction mode at the last instant.
When the band coagulated into melody, the crowd responded. "You think I'll carve a path through New York, and be an artist, but are you anything?" Avey Tare sang on "Peacebone," and a sing-along emerged for half-a-second, before the band sailed back into the drum machine seas. The crowd cheered anyway. Something is happening here.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com