Whitney, Devendra Banhart and Cass McCombs band Pepper Santa Cruz with live music

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Devendra Banhart’s 2021 release Refuge should be accompanied by a warning similar to advice on some drug labels: may cause drowsiness; do not operate heavy machinery while listening. The bearded singer-songwriter says there is no greater compliment than hearing that the record has put someone to sleep.

“If you do fall asleep, we’ve done our job,” Banhart said seriously.

Refuge is unlike the generosity of multicultural, freak-folk songs from his previous 10 LPs. Banhart swapped the childish whimsy and characteristic coloring outside the lines for a tense, utilitarian, and deliberate approach – more Sleepytime chamomile tea with a Brian Eno angel on the shoulder than ayahuasca and Donovan soaked parades at Rio de Janeiro from the streets.

The pandemic informed the collection of new age / ambient instrumentals. Banhart says he and his longtime collaborator / producer / multi-instrumentalist Noah Georgeson were inspired to “create a very nostalgic, sentimental, family space.” Refuge is the result.

“Noah and I come from families of dedicated spiritual practitioners with very strong contemplative practices,” Banhart says. “There is a musical side to it that attracted us when we were kids. It meant a lot of Indian, ambient and new age music – the music from our childhood and the music we turned to, especially during the pandemic, to create a sense of calm. We’ve all been through so much anxiety, so falling asleep is the best compliment you can give us. Music you hear and can immediately forget; what a huge compliment.

Like Eno’s Music for airports series, self-proclaimed compositions aimed at inducing calm and intentionally written to be “as ignorable as they are interesting”, Refuge falls under the same new age sub-genre: environmental ambient music. As Music for airports, which made its way into New York’s LaGuardia and other airports during the 1980s, Refuge was installed at the Central Garden of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The record, broadcast via a personalized audio system placed on circular tracks, was looped continuously over a weekend last August. Museum guests were encouraged to “relax on the lawns with a picnic, take a bench or stroll among the flower beds as the sound vibrations cleanse the air for a new era.”

Although the journey has been arduous, Banhart has agreed to arrive in a “new era”; he accepts that the world will never be the same again.

“There is a huge mourning in there,” he said. “There is also something very inspiring and beautiful about it. “

Throughout Banhart’s 20-year career, he seems to always manage to find a muse, even if one does exist somewhere in him. As a result, he’s been one of the most prolific monsters in the world: he’s already using his new worldview as a starting point for another album he’s co-producing with Welsh talent Cate Le Bon.

Banhart’s creative pulse extends beyond music. He always has something colorful in his back pocket, whether it’s a “little book of poems” or fine art. Last February, his first solo art exhibition, “The Grief I Have Caused You, “ debuted at the Nicodim Gallery in LA.

The collection of non-linear paintings and drawings combines suffering and humor, like a sad clown tickling your heart. Many surreal works feature floating body parts, playfully planted with quick brushstrokes, sometimes using as much blank canvas as space filled – you have to crinkle a bit to see what you’re looking at; there are a lot of penises.

“Those cocks all over the place, I understand it’s funny and juvenile, but I’m trying to balance the scales a bit,” Banhart says. “If you go to any museum on this planet, 80% [of the art] presents naked women. There are dicks, but it’s crazy how misogyny is there on our faces in these incredible spaces commemorating the highest achievements of mankind. So I thought, “Let’s put some more penises in there.”

Banhart approaches his fine art with a philosophy closely linked to the inspiration behind Refuge.

“When I started doing art, it was about being me as much as possible,” he explains. “Over time, I realized that it was really about being less and less me or my ambitions. I’ve tried to get out of the way to create something honest, something that isn’t about me and something that resonates. But it’s also a paradox: to be there and not be there at the same time, and not to take myself too seriously.

Banhart returns seamlessly to music. He and his band have only given one show just a few weeks ago since the pandemic, so he’s scrambling to go out and play live shows. As for Banhart, his next getaway, which consists of just four shows, including stops at Big Sur, Sonoma, Grass Valley and the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, might as well be an international stadium tour.

“It sounds like the biggest tour we’ve ever done because we’re so excited to play,” Banhart said. “I’ve had this core group for a long time, and we all love each other, and we all communicate really well on stage – I don’t know if what we’re communicating is good, but we’ve been working on our ability to communicate. [on stage]. We’ve been doing it for so long that [the music] is very fluid.

During the extended Covid-induced hiatus, Banhart and his bandmates – Jeremy Harris (synth), Nicole Lawrence (guitar, pedal steel), Greg Rogove (drums) – realized they had failed to connect with audiences and to discover the different ways in which songs unravel inhabit.

“I look forward to these four shows in a way I have never looked forward to,” Banhart said. “It doesn’t hurt that [the shows] are in some of our favorite places. I know it sounds naive, but I hope from here you just have to move on, try to make a better world.

Big week live

Also this week at the Rio are Chicago-based duo Whitney, formed by Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek and Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich. Since 2014, the duo has been delivering frank folk-rock focused on the human experience: falling in love, falling in love, depression. Whitney’s 2020 Album Candid, an impressive cover record, picks up the work of everyone from the largely unknown singer-songwriter Blaze Foley to the ’90s R&B trio SWV.

Singer-songwriter Cass McCombs and her band close the week with a show at Moe’s. McCombs’ Mighty Post-Punk Gem “Sleeping Volcanoes” Out of 2019 Tip of the sphere, is a blend of expert phrasing, subtle effects and quiet existentialism.

“[‘Sleeping Volcanoes’ is about] people passing each other on the sidewalk, oblivious to the emotional volatility they are going through, like a dormant volcano that could erupt at any time, ”says McCombs.

We can all understand each other.

Whitney with Renée Reed performs Tuesday October 12 at the Rio Theater, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 8 p.m. $ 28. Devendra Banhart with Cate Le Bon performs Thursday October 14 at the Rio. 8 p.m. $ 35 to $ 40. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (done within 72 hours) required. riotheatre.com. Cass McCombs Band with Farmer Dave and The Wizards of the West performs Friday October 15 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. 9 p.m. $ 25 to $ 28. Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (done within 48 hours) required. folkyeah.com.


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