Devendra Banhart at MoMA, San Francisco

Post Author: Dan Sarna

When I found out that Devendra Banhart was showing his album art alongside some Paul Klee pieces in an SF MoMA show entitled “Abstract Rhythms”, I was simultaneously perplexed and enthralled and so was thrust resolutely into an all-shakras-go soul sweeping search for the connection between the two artists. After first consulting the pattern of green tea leaves at the bottom of my Zhou Dynasty saucer, in which was revealed a green clump interpreted as a green light for “go to the exhibit”, I headed off to the MoMA to study the exhibit description. When the art-argot of “linear movement, rhythmic structure and syntax, surrealist inflection, the double entendre of the concept of composition” misaligned my ley-line orientation, I decided I needed to meditate in the corner of the Carl Djerassi room, where I remained for seven days and six nights, but all I got other than a sweet conversation with the tiger recently killed by the SF Zoo was that Klee played violin and dug folk music.

So then I gathered together all of my Haruspex homies and embarked on a three week augury binge, inspecting every cloud, smoke ring, bird flock, sheep liver, and thoroughly examining the pecking behavior of over 100 sacred chickens of Etruscan lineage for insights into this mystery. Nothing. We even had a Ouija-chat with the ghost of Klee to see if Devendra had been doing the same, but he hadn’t, so eventually I decided to actually go look at the art. So it was only after I left the exhibit with visions of Quetzalcoatl, Indra’s lightning bolts, Smoky (the fictional protagonist of Devendra’s latest album) and Klee’s bassoonist blowing the word “crescendo” out his ass in my head that it hit me.

To Klee, visual art is capable, in a musical sort of way, of containing multiple narratives and embodying intersecting yet relatively independent lines of experience and meaning. Devendra, I believe it is safe to say, presents in his music a collection of narratives which contain a wealth of experience, a plurality of influence and convey a sort of sensory collision- could this be the Connection?

The performance on Thursday, in the SF MoMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theater was certainly plural, or poly or whatever. Material old and new, pared down at points and embellished with six-piece accompaniment elsewhere, lyrics at once surreal, didactic, comical, non-sequitor, evoking chimerical creatures, fairyfolktale imagery and absurd emotional landscapes, conversation topics veering from being head of the Popcorn Department at the Castro theatre and being afraid of the giant chandelier to how sitting down is proper MoMA etiquette, arrangements drawing from disparate sources and stumbling across genres, an Ushanka and a five person backup chorus which, sometimes in round sometimes in unison, was constantly reminding me of Fraggle Rock. Trippy.

“I cannot be understood at all on this earth. For I live as much with the dead as with the unborn. Somewhat closer to the heart of creation than usual. But not nearly close enough.”

–Paul Klee’s epitaph, more or less as read by Devendra, which, in the words of guitarist Noah Georgeson, “seems pretty arrogant, don’t you think?”