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Home in the Wild West: Devendra Banhart, Beck and Caetano Veloso at MOCA

November 15, 2010 |  2:16 pm


The multimedia artist Doug Aitken, who envisioned the Artist's Museum Happening at MOCA on Saturday night, had a singular mission: to describe and then harness the energy of the West, for one fleeting evening.

The trio of musicians who performed as the evening's central entertainment scraped at the spirit of this ineffable and wild territory: Devendra Banhart, filling in the role of scruffy bohemian; Beck, the sun-kissed folkie who's drawn inspiration from trashy strip-malls; and the Brazilian former exile and Tropicalismo poet, Caetano Veloso.

Before the musical interlude, the mood in the tent set up outside the museum was already sparking. Yet, it was also curiously mellow, a California combination if there ever was one. Bejeweled diners picked at their delicate heirloom lettuce salads underneath white sculptures designed by Silver Lake architect Barbara Bestor. With black draping covering the walls, the room was dark and softly lit. Wherever the eye roamed, the contradictions of this particular slice of Los Angeles could be caught in the complex interchange between the nipped-and-tucked patrons of the arts, and the networking gypsy artists who need them.

On a stage in the center of the room, Banhart was the first musician to perform, playing "At the Hop" from his 2004 album, "Nino Rojo." Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and cleanly shaved, Banhart relied on his vibrato to color in the song's child-like rhymes. It was an openhearted start, effectively setting the mood for Beck's and Veloso's wistful music.

Beckcaetano Beck joined Banhart and other musicians on strings and upright bass for "The Golden Age," the opening track to his gorgeous breakup album, "Sea Change." With Beck on acoustic and Banhart providing lead guitar, the song had a lilting, lived-in feeling that was pastoral and elegant at once, a shift away from the song's steelier tones on the album.

In a brief conversation after the show, Beck said that Aitken selected "The Golden Age." "He wanted that expansive sound," Beck said. "We spent quite a lot of time together circling around ideas of the West." The musicians had spent the last three days rehearsing together, capturing the wide-screen quality.

The mood concentrated when Veloso climbed on stage in a vaguely futuristic running suit and black sneakers. He played only two songs with Beck, Banhart and the rest of the musicians, but the resonance his music struck with Los Angeles was moving and exquisite.

When Veloso delivered the chorus of his first song, the rustic bossa nova of "Nine Out Of Ten," it took on a new, wry twist in an audience speckled with famous faces, such as Kirsten Dunst and Giovanni Ribisi. "Nine out of 10 movie stars," he sang, "make me cry. I'm alive."

But it was the second song, "Maria Bethania," that elevated the evening to where Aitken perhaps wanted, to something rare and hypnotizing. With the musicians supplying a strong, warm current underneath him (aided by some of Beck's vintage equipment from home), Veloso was free to hunker down on his guitar. The stringed instruments dovetailed and pitched around him; the bongos giving the music a throwback beatnik vibe. His lyrics veered from playful to speculative, with the song's opening line, "Everybody knows our cities were built to be destroyed," carrying power in MOCA's makeshift shelter -- glamorous for now but slated for destruction at the evening's end.

Devendramoca After the show, a clearly exhausted Veloso received hugs from fans such as artist Diana Thater, whose work is part of the Artist's Museum exhibition. He plunked down at Beck's table with Lisa Gabrielle Mark, the former director of publications for MOCA and Beck's sister-in-law, recalling his early visits to Los Angeles several years ago.

"It's not a city that's easy to understand or to like," Veloso said, fiddling with leftover silverware. "I would come to Hollywood Boulevard and it didn't make any sense to me. I would go Downtown and see all the big, empty buildings and think, 'Where are all the people?' But slowly, I'm coming around."

He looked around at the crowd, now loosened up and wandering away from their tables. "I've changed my feelings regarding this town. I like it more now."

Veloso, who fled Brazil and its rightist government around 1970, chronicled a brief history of how he came to write "Maria Bethania," an open letter to his sister, the legendary singer. He wouldn't return to Brazil until 1974; the country's military rule ended in 1985.

"I wrote that song while in exile in London in 1970. I was in a depressed mood," he said. "I wanted to say something to my sister; I wanted her to write me a letter and tell me if things are getting better. The song was a way to reassure myself that one day, I'd get to return home."

-- Margaret Wappler

Upper photo: Beck performing "The Golden Age." Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images for MOCA

Middle photo: Caetano Veloso shaking hands with Beck. Credit Danny Moloshok / Reuters

Lower photo: Devendra Banhart sings "At the Hop." Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for MOCA