Music fest is a many-octaved thing
Devendra Banhart was as pleased as tequila-laced punch, holding his empty margarita glass proudly in the El Cid courtyard Tuesday as the first installment of the ambitious five-night outsider folk music festival he programmed slowly turned into a sellout.
He laughed when someone commented on all the bearded males in the room. “It doesn’t take any work to grow a beard,” he said. “You just let it happen.” That’s rather like the scene the gifted singer-songwriter has helped define, made up of lone wolves and outsider collectives emerging out of dusty corners from Venice to Granada.
Banhart, the unofficial leader of the handily named “freak folk” movement (though, naturally, he resists such labels), has a lot of Allen Ginsberg in him. He projects that same twinkly aura the great poet possessed, part hokum and part prodigious vision. This fete, titled “Hypnorituals and Mesmemusical Miracles Hanging in the Sky: 5 Nights of Soleros and Bandoleros,” brings together his “wish list” of semi-unknowns working on the edges of folk-influenced balladry. “A lot of these people came from punk rock,” he said.
Though the trappings were more hippie-ish than punk -- El Cid’s small main room overflowed with women in gauzy dresses and men wearing sparkly scarves -- the sounds made during the program’s first two nights reflected the values those two subgenres share: unpolished enthusiasm, impetuous experimentation and an insiderness that nonetheless welcomed listeners willing to learn the ropes.
The eight acts appearing over the fest’s first two nights (both bookended by jovial readings by poet and painter Eric Ernest Johnson) ranged from solo acoustic guitar-based bards to shambling collectives. Listening felt like wandering through hallways in an old house, opening up doors to find things that never asked to be revealed. Yet the best acts had enough song sense and communicative skills to bring their esotericism into the light.
Most thrilling was Tuesday’s headlining band, Feathers, the Vermont-based collective whose debut album came out in April on Banhart’s Gnomonsong label. Feathers’ seven members alternate instruments every song, a nightmare for anyone wanting a tight set but a revelation for those interested in how improvisation becomes songcraft.
Everyone in the band -- two women and three men presented their compositions -- had his or her own sparkle, whether leaning toward winsome Baroque pop or feminine introversion. The collective approach and the club’s iffy sound might have sunk a less skilled crew, but Feathers showed how careful listening and subtle self-control can turn a potential mess into magic.
Conversely, Jana Hunter presented her reticent songs with a quietly fierce sense of solitude. Hunter, who hails from Houston and is also a Gnomonsong artist, writes fragmentary verses that work on the page. But it’s her voice, with a tone that’s fluty and rich, that makes her song sestinas memorable. Looking like Thora Birch in “Ghost World,” plucking at a worn guitar, Hunter was an unlikely inheritor of the folk goddess mantle. Her lack of aplomb only served to emphasize her songs’ quiet artfulness.
Entrance, who also performed Tuesday, was all aplomb: This pseudonymous wild man keened and slashed at his guitar, raising a flurry of psychedelic blues-punk that carried shards of Middle Eastern drone in its wake. Not always nailing the falsetto he preferred, Entrance still impressed with his dogged intensity as he sang disturbing meditations on death and transcendence. Not exactly accessible, but completely in the audience’s face, Entrance took the crown as the festival’s most determined rock star.
The only truly notable performer Wednesday couldn’t have been more different. Ruthann Friedman took the stage with unassuming sweetness, looking more like someone who’d headline a community picnic than a hipster gathering. The 62-year-old Los Angeles resident, who recorded one album in 1969 that was recently reissued, is best known for writing the Association’s vanilla pop classic “Windy,” but her set at El Cid showed her talent beyond one-hit-wonder status.
Friedman, a former housemate of David Crosby and the Jefferson Airplane, showed the influence of her peers, but her jazz-touched, melodically complex songs went beyond mere hippie confessions. One reflectively mourned her sister’s suicide; another she dedicated to Astrud Gilberto, and, though Friedman’s voice and guitar-picking showed the effects of years not performing, she captured that Brazilian lilt. As she shared stories from her long, strange trip, many of the festival’s other performers sat rapt, grateful that Banhart had rescued a mentor from obscurity.
Allen Ginsberg once described poetry as representing “that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public.”
That’s the essence of the scene Banhart is exposing. This evening’s final episode of the Hypnorituals festival, presented this week by Arthur Magazine and the Fold, brings esteemed folk elder Michael Hurley, Sun City Girls member Richard Bishop, and Britain-bred, Spain-based experimenters Stuart and Caan. Expect some doors to open.