devendra-banhart-rokia-traore

Tonight’s double-header kicks off a month long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Nonesuch Records at the Barbican. This is a fitting place for a label with such a rich and varied cultural history – it has been home to the likes of John Zorn, Caetano Veloso, The Black Keys and of course tonight’s performers.

Devendra Banhart ambles on to kick things off. He is back to his solo roots this evening, and appears full of nervous energy. Ever the dapper and entertaining raconteur, Banhart begins with a endearingly rambling tale about pre show nerves and the pitfalls of expressing joy when dealing with the UK Border Control.

The solo performance means tonight’s set delves into the more mellow, dreamy songs from his back catalogue.

He lulls us in with Quedate Luna, and the whispery Golden GirlsCarmensita sounds super-seductive with just vocals and guitar, under the smoky lights (even if it is punctuated with the odd mid-song giggle). His deft guitar picking comes to the fore this evening and serves as a reminder of his instrumental skills as well has his distinctive vocals.

The latter half of the set become a chaotic call and response affair, with people shouting out requests. “I don’t know how to play any of this shit…I normally have a band” he quips, fielding one of many shout outs.

I didn’t shout out, but I did think to myself “I wish he’d play Little Yellow Spider”, and he did.

He tells more stories, including a brief history of Nonesuch, and one about visiting labels in NYC to put ‘Mala’ out on which became reminiscent of the Coen Brother’s titular character Llewyn Davies as it went on.

The Body Breaks is rare moment of stillness and (relative) seriousness, it’s nice to hear the old songs, intimately played. He meanders off, as chaotically as he came, he’s unlikely to ever be a slick showman, and I hope that never changes.

I have to confess to knowing nothing about  Malian singer and guitarist Rokia Traoré prior to tonight’s gig.  In contrast to Mr Banhart, she is flanked by an impressive array of backing singers and musicians. She is a small woman with a big guitar and an even bigger voice. She is elegantly spoken when she addresses the audience, thanking them for enabling her to exist as an artist. Rokia Traoré is paradoxical performer: simultaneously powerful and delicate.

She is joined by Devendra Banhart for Saram, one of the only English language songs and a beautiful tribute to African women. Whether you understand the lyrics or not, it’s clear from her recent album’s title ‘Beautiful Africa’, she is a storyteller with a very definite sense of place and given Mali’s very recent troubles, being a musician is certainly not an easy occupation in her homeland. However, the mood is a celebratory as it is reflective. Kouma builds to a heavy crescendo, and Traoré’s enthusiastic dancing and her beaming smile are both infectious. I’ll consider the second half of tonight’s gig an interesting chapter in my continuing musical education.

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