A band, a part

Devendra Banhart and the Grogs live at Berklee Performance Center, November 14, 2009
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  November 24, 2009

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My lingering qualms with Devendra Banhart's new album have very little to do with its substance and more to do with its consistency, a quality that throughout What Will We Be? seems present only in its glaring absence — sometimes coming off as artful liberty, other times like disingenuous dudeplay. Bands aren't usually praised for effectively confining their leaders, but in the case of the Grogs, a little limitation goes a long way.

Comprising Rodrigo Amarante and Noah Georgeson of Little Joy, bassist Lucky Remington of the Pleased, and ferocious-when-he-wants-to-be drummer Greg Rogove of resin-psych outfit Priestbird, Banhart's Grogs (formerly, he swears, called Doom Fist 3D) condensed what felt like nine years (say, '67-'76?) of countercultural momentum into 90 minutes of polite performance (none dared abandon their seats until an encore diptych of "Chinese Children" and "I Feel Like a Child"), and it felt more refined than tamed. Often, their treatments of the arrangements on What Will We Be? subtracted just enough to make the songs not just manageable (a feat for some of the record's more distracted numbers) but truly memorable. On record, "16th & Valencia Roxy Music" sounds like a Michelob ad waiting to happen; on stage, its stu-stu-studio slickness was softened into a barely-there lullaby. (Was this how it was supposed to go in the first place?)

Sometimes, they subtracted themselves entirely. A solo acoustic cover of Johnny Thunder's "Memory" was gripping, Banhart's long shadow writhing on the wall as he sang, "It doesn't pay to try/all the smart boys know why." Equally sweet was his solo performance of "I Remember," "Last Song for B," and "Little Yellow Spider" — the latter of which he was preparing a "goddamn"-less version of for a taping of Yo Gabba Gabba the following day.

When the band did make themselves known (as with the smoldering bossa textures of "Brindo" or the tie-dyed freakout of "Rats"), they did so with the abandon of boys in the practice space — a quality that's much more apparent live than on headphones. Asserting that the Grogs were a band of his favorite songwriters, Banhart judiciously gave each represented group some time in the spotlight, bathing the audience in a fearsome tri-guitar Priestbird onslaught, a sweet pop song from the Pleased, and a surprise highlight in the form of Little Joy's "For No One's Better Sake."

From song to song (or band to band, as it were), a remarkable, redeeming consistency was upheld throughout (Banhart even chewed the same piece of gum for the entire 90 minutes). It's nice to be reminded that the real Banhart is the one playing in front of you, not the one on your iPod. His curveballs make more sense, his scattered ideas seem more like one enormous one, and when he turns to his bros and asks "Listo?," you can't help but think he's checking with you, too.

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