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Concert Review by Dave Broom
 
CONCERT REVIEW - JOSEPHINE FOSTER/ESPERS/DEVENDRA BANHART
Concorde 2, Brighton UK, 9th August 2005 
by Dave Broom
Where’s that sound coming from? That high keening sound? The one that’s making me shiver. Her? Are her lips moving? God it’s hot. Not perhaps the best night to be at a sold-out gig inside a club whose idea of air conditioning is to open a side door to let more humid air in. But hey, it’s folk music, right? This’ll be back to the days of the floor-sitting, head-nodding, funny cigarette smoking days of the 70s. Not like we’ll be dancing! As I said this is folk. I’ve even grown my beard a little longer to generate extra stroking potential ... and I’ve got sandals on. The Hawaiian shirt is, in retrospect a sartorial error.
The top billing is Devendra Banhart, the new leader of this loosely- affiliated movement that’s seen folk raising its profile -- as it does every few years. The music is lo-fi, quiet, floorboard-creakingly intimate. He’s brought along two support acts and that’s the sound is coming from the first of them, Josephine Foster.
It’s a wail, a melancholy cry .. and then the words come, in an mannered accent which seems like ancient English. You know these songs but have never heard them before. It is music so ancient that it seems part of you. If she was alive living in the 17th century she’d have been tied to a stake the moment she started to sing.
The guitar playing is rudimentary. She plays as if she’s just learned the first chords. Her strange narratives float and settle over the crowd. Conversation stops. This is folk, but not folk. This is new folk, underground folk, acid folk, call it what you want. It’s the sound of bands recording in the woods, tapping into the old stories because they’ve realised that they are the bloodiest, strangest songs of all.
She sings so quietly yet has silenced this boisterous, hot, crowd. No-one is sitting down. Instead at the end of every song people look at one another and shudder as if they’re coming out of a dream. It’s opium folk.
She slips off. We refresh the inner being with beer. The stage crowds up with guitars, keyboards, a drum kit and .. a cello? Now there’s an instrument you don’t often see wielded in anger these days. Right enough, Joanna Newsom plays the harp and she’s even odder than Josephine Foster, singing in some demented child’s voice. But she's not playing, this is Espers. I’ve heard them before. Their music is .. you guessed .. quiet. It’s layered and textured, tight harmonies. Someone says Pentangle, someone else offers Jefferson Airplane. Neither are a good frame of reference for me. They start. The talking continues. The number ends. A smatter of applause. They start another song. It’s even quieter. The talking gets louder. The spell has gone.
Joanna Newsom
What I can hear is every bit as good as the records (which are nothing like Pentangle or the bloody Airplane) but they’ve lost the crowd. The cello is good the loudest thing on stage. They leave. I suspect they’ve cut it short. We have more beer.
By now I’m fearing for Devendra. I mean, his albums consist of him and a guitar with occasional, minimal backing. You can hear the dust in the room settling. His odd, funny, sad, surreal songs seem to appear out of thin air, improvised on the spot. On his last tour he sat cross legged on a platform on the stage. I look around. No-one is sitting down, beards have remained unstroked, there are precious few sandals. Only the perfume of exotic cigarettes gives some hint of this being the type of gig I’m expecting, but to be honest you get that smell at every gig in Brighton, even string quartets in the pavilion. He’ll be murdered by this lot.
The stage fills again. There’s a man wearing towels on his head. "I’m a gnome!” he shouts. A boiled gnome. Another (bearded) wearing a kaftan. Another (bearded) stage right and a tall skinny (also bearded) one in the middle. There’s lot of beards. Right enough, he’s got a song about a beard. There’s also lot of hair. There also appears to be blusher and mascara. There are also, if my sweat-filled eyes do not deceive me, electric guitars.
“These are the Hairy Fairies,” says the one with the biggest blackest beard and makeup. That makes him Devendra. They kick off by sitting on stools and singing in Spanish and then plug in. His shirt comes off. It’s rock n roll! The whole gig teeters on the edge of disaster as he gets an audience member to come up and sing a song, then follows it with a cod reggae one. Never a good idea the cod reggae. Then just as the vaudeville threatens to kill everything he rescues it: by the musicianship, good humour, talent ... and the songs.

Ah yes, the songs: he mashes together a number by Lauren Hill with one penned by Charles Manson, there’s songs about bestiality (a pig, if you’re interested), a psychedelic squid (that goes down very well here) there’s hermaphrodites and bald men wanting their children to be hairy so they can be warm in winter. This is folk? It might be, but it’s also glam rock cut with disco. He’s always had the voice of Bolan but now it’s plugged-in Bolan. Then it hits me.. the Hairy fairies are the new Spirit, he’s Randy California, the kid who could do anything. He can switch from disco to glam to acoustic, English to Spanish, subject to subject because ... hell.. because he can. At this moment in his life, songs are flowing from him as naturally as speaking. The audience is pogoing, shouting. I wonder who will be the first to cry “Judas!” but we’re all grown up now. The lights come on, the band play on. Witches, beards and hairy fairies. Welcome to the new weird. - Dave Broom (Devendra Banhart photo Steve Gullick, others X)




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