Muy Tropical: Gilberto Gil & Devendra Banhart @ The Bowl

Sunday’s show at the bowl was billed as a trans-generation, trans-genre, trans-national event and they weren’t lying. The night was chalk full of “trans.” First of all, it felt trans-locational. The Hollywood Bowl has a way of feeling like classy restaurant, a city park, and, during Gilberto Gil’s set anyways, a cruise liner.

The show opened with a special, one time only, incarnation of The Album Leaf who were joined by Mike Heron of the Scottish psychedelic band The Incredible String Band and his daughter Georgia Seddon. The Album Leaf set the tone with a couple of songs that had dramatic strings and keys moving slowly above a stuttery drum and bass clicks that would have been at home in a postal service song. The Album Leaf’s sound has evolved since the last album I’d heard from them, 2001’s Someday I’ll Be On Time and the contrast between the electronic elements and the organic sounds of the guitars and violins was much more fully realized. However, the addition of lyrics wasn’t necessarily as progressive and for the most part stayed within classic confines such as “I want you here, you are here/I don’t want to see you leave.” At a certain point the music should be able to convey such broad emotional strokes without explicit statement. Mike Heron came out on stage to take the songmatter a little farther out from the literal. The band’s Incredible String Band covers were livelier but Heron’s voice didn’t hold up as well under the stress. He did much better when he followed the Album Leaf’s somber instrumentation with his own moody Scott-tinged delivery. While The Album Leaf may have advanced since the last time I heard them they haven’t yet completely overcome their tendency to be a little boring, Devendra Banhart and Gilberto Gil seemed to be on a mission to spread as much energy into the Los Angeles night sky as humanly possible.

Although Devendra Banhart was listed first on the advertisements for this show, he came out next. I suppose it would look a bit presumptuous to take the headlining slot over someone who has been an icon for at least forty years. That is one of my favorite things about Banhart, he is the opposite of presumption and conceit. I have liked Banhart ever since I got my hands on Nino Rojo when it came out but I have become veritably ga-ga over the man within the last week since I saw him perform with Megapuss. He is absolutely delightful to watch. The nation’s, nay, the world’s youth is lucky that Banhart is not inclined to be a cult leader because business would undoubtedly be good. We would all find ourselves to be long hair children. Banhart opened with “Little Yellow Spider,” which was a great choice because it allowed him to show off how good he is at manipulating his voice. Banhart is exceptionally good at infusing a natural energy that emulates the environments that he describes. His voice fluttered and chirped over bubbling brook guitars. He fluctuates the tones so that the sound jumps out at you in a way that can best be described like wearing 3-D glasses for your ears.

Banhart embraced the theme of the night and played some of his non English songs in addition to addressing the crowd in English and Spanish. As always Banhart took the time to joke with his band and there was a moment when Banhart and Noah Georgeson seemed oblivious to the crowd as they joked back and forth away from their mics balled up in laughter. Save for that one instance of exclusivity, Banhart treated the entire audience like one big Noah Georgeson; leaning in towards the microphone as though he was telling us a hilarious secret through giddy lips. If I were forced to describe the entire evening with one song it would be Banhart’s finale, “Carmencita”, which melded a South American vibe with 60’s psychedelic echoes and a folk perspective. I couldn’t think of a better transition to Gil’s set.

I knew Gilberto Gil was an iconic figure in world music before attending this concert but that’s about all I knew. I expected to see a spirited older man walk out on stage and play some groovy classic bossa nova. It turns out though that Gil has been a constant innovator during his whole career and has continued to modernize his music ever since he developed the Tropicalism style that resulted in his imprisonment and decade long exile. Gil’s band had more technical equipment on stage then both opening acts combined and the music they produced was far from conservative. Between songs Gil gave the audience brief history lessons and described the influences that had come together to produce the different styles he was playing. What all of his songs had in common was an invigorating pace. Gil, 66, hopped, danced and ran across that stage like a teenager and his energy got a huge response from the crowd, at points it felt as though the entire bowl was on its feet and people were running and dancing up and down the aisles. Banhart joined Gil for the epic jam under the craziest lighting I have ever seen at a concert. Banhart lent some vocals to the song but seemed content to spend most of his time dancing about excitedly next to his idol. The evening ended as the two singers bounced offstage arm in arm.

(photo credit: Mathew Imaging)

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