Tuesday, May 01, 2012

she couldn't dance but she wanted to

Back at home and if I'm going to get over this post-concert depression, the best way to do it is with another show. This time, it's the heavenly Fruit Bats at the Independent.

Fruit Bats, the Independent, 04-26-12Fruit Bats, the Independent, April 26, 2012: This is how incredibly out of it I am when it comes to the Fruit Bats. I was vaguely aware of Eric Johnson's stint with the Shins, but I had no idea the Decemberists recently covered "When U Love Somebody," though that totally explains why the entire crowd got into the song, including the guy who didn't appear to speak another word of English over the course of the night. If the price of admission were a pop quiz on the band, I never would've been allowed entrance, barring acceptance of a wobbly rendition of "Rainbow Sign."

Fruit Bats have been vastly underrepresented in this blog and, well, in my life, considering how much I love Mouthfuls and the first gig I saw of theirs at Bottom of the Hill approximately 100 years ago (or 2003 -- photo evidence presented below!) populated mainly by the musicians' friends, who requested both "Buffalo and Deer" and one of the best covers of "Purple Rain" I've ever heard. Since then, I've caught them only one other time, probably because they had a habit of playing here on the weekends I was out of town, in all likelihood pursuing my other musical interests. For obvious reasons, I'm not including the Eric Johnson sighting from a couple of years ago at a Wilco aftershow in Portland entirely peopled by indie rockers and food cart vendors. In short, I needed to hit this gig!

Fruit Bats, Bottom of the Hill, 11-11-03

I don't think any dedicated music fan can or cares to distill their favorite songs to one element or characteristic, but if I had to name a common feature among my most beloved bands/performers, it has to be the voice. Granted, my idea of a great voice probably wouldn't pass muster on any of the TV competition shows, and I doubt I can come up with a consistent definition for what constitutes golden vocals. Also, it never hurts if those dulcet tones are matched to lilting melodies, jangly guitars, a driving rhythm, and maybe airy piano. Ultimately, as a nonmusician, I like to sing along, so the voice is my hook.

Eric Johnson, as leader of the Fruit Bats, possesses my Platonic ideal of a pop voice -- like, if it were up to me, his croon would've gone out on Voyager to represent the apex of our culture to alien species (probably). I've compared him to Neil Finn in the past, but if Neil brings to mind Paul McCartney, Eric's pipes take me back a decade. I can hear him helming classic Buddy Holly tracks, though I'm pretty sure he can handle almost anything you throw his way.

Fruit Bats, the Independent, 04-26-12I've read enough YouTube and AV Club comments to know I'm not alone in this regard, and maybe the band got the memo too because the show opened with Eric on his own on electric guitar. I can't tell you what the song was because (1) I don't take notes during shows (except when that one fellow in Los Angeles is headlining), and (2) I don't own the new record. In fact, I've been pretty slack about keeping up with the Fruit Bats for the last few records, but that's about to change now that I've seen the error of my ways.

I still think of Fruit Bats as a folk group, probably due to the memories of that first, bare-bones show, despite the ample evidence of their full, lush arrangements. More generally, Fruit Bats often get lumped into the befuddling Americana genre; sure, they're known to play a banjo, but the production work on their early records wouldn't necessarily lead you down that path. I don't think the new songs are going to put much distance between them and this current pigeonhole (namechecking Michael Landon in your onstage banter doesn't help either), but on this outing, you couldn't ignore their rocking qualities. I'm intrinsically drawn to the bubbling grace notes, but the bluesy troughs and aggro excursions made a strong impression. Don't worry, though; on one track, the band crafted three-part harmonies right in front of our eyes -- not necessarily a rarity, but it's still a sight to behold and, er, be-hear. I'm pretty sure that song was, in fact, "Rainbow Sign."

Sub Pop label mate and local legend Kelley Stoltz was second on the bill. He's another guy whose gigs have a way of eluding me, though I saw him open for British Sea Power in 2005, and there's always the Echo and the Bunnymen tribute show with Spiral Stairs that originated in San Francisco long ago.

Anyway, back to Kelley: I always do a double take whenever his songs come up on shuffle -- the depth and richness of his tracks never fail to stand out from the crowd. As a support act, Kelley's portion was limited to 45 minutes, so he didn't get to some requests, notably "Wave Goodbye," which I would've loved to hear too.

The centerpiece of his show were the two tracks from his single, "Caroline" and "Marcy." As Kelley explained it, "Caroline" was sort of a tribute to all songs sharing that name, in whatever form, and it bore the signs of that lineage. Its retro feel was evident, but somehow, he makes it sound modern too. We also got a new track Kelley and the band had worked up just a couple of days before, a murky, psychedelic number, filling out a night of classic songwriting, catchy melodies, and artful arrangements.

I probably say this all the time, but I mean it: Gentlemen, please play again and let me correct the error of my ways.

See also:
» waiting for the rainbow sign
» from the books you don't read anyway