Music Notes: A Column from the Sounds of Colorado College Devendra Banhart Transforms into a ‘Ma’ at the Boulder Theater

By Lauren Hough

Clad in the sleekest of all black getups, down to the polished Prada oxfords, cleanly-pressed Devendra Banhart sashayed on stage and silently announced to the crowd that he was indeed a fancy man. The stage was set with a giant tapestry that displayed Devendra’s ginormous hand-painted flowers which mirrored the floral design on the cover of “Ma”, his newest album. 

“Ma” is multilingual, multicolored, and splattered with primary colors and songs that salute Carole King and John Lennon. Banhart released three singles as a prelude to the complete album, each one wildly fun and widely different: “Kantori Ongaku,” “Abre Las Manos,” and “Taking a Page.” 

With each coveted single release, my understanding of Banhart’s vision grew — this wasn’t about a cohesive musical aesthetic, but rather a unified concept. This album is about those who teach us, who impart wisdom, who guide us in the world, and who bring us into this world. 

The album is Banhart’s journey into him becoming a Ma. It is his statement of paternity and maternity. Yet I was hesitant to like “Ma”. I couldn’t understand this new role Banhart had chosen to play.

I saw Banhart and his band perform in Boulder with my friend Mimi. The experience could best be described as similar to the feeling of being a preschooler. 

I imagined huge bugs crawling across the stage and felt as if every audience member was sitting googly-eyed, criss-cross applesauce in a semi-circle. Banhart talked almost cryptically, telling us long, extended, made-up stories about socks and concerts he performed fifty years ago (but he’s only 38). The kick drum was adorned with a huge smiley face, with the ‘Om’ symbol for its eyes. The flowers on the tapestry seemed to grow, or maybe I was just shrinking, becoming more like a child.

He began the concert by performing “Is This Nice?,” a soft song loaded with lessons on how to love, cry, and create. Give this song a listen for references to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” if nothing else. 

Banhart sang maybe five or six songs on “Ma” before dragging a wooden stool and his acoustic guitar on stage and asking the audience what they’d like to hear. Some people ecstatically shouted the names of their favorite songs, while others widened their eyes and raised their hands, waiting for the teacher to call on them.

 I was in the second boat of people, and when called on, I requested Banhart play “Shame,” an old, silly song about boobs and playing in the sun. “Shame” is a song that encapsulated my former image of Devendra Banhart as an artist. It is a song that makes you want to let go and dance and let yourself be like your childhood self (after all, the song does come from an EP called “I Feel Just Like a Child”). 

Banhart looked almost shocked at my request, as it’s one of his oldest songs. He thanked me for choosing that one, but said the band didn’t know how to play it. Admittedly, I was sad. Being unable to hear that song live was a minor heartbreak!

Thinking about it now, “Shame” didn’t fit into that concert. While I had always thought of Devendra Banhart as having the fervent feel of a child, I had missed that he had changed. His music contained more teachings than before. It was less spastic, more put together, and better organized — in the way some parental figures are. The caterpillar has become a butterfly! The sprout has become a bean! Banhart has become a Ma!  

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