Fruit Bats | 10.27.15

live fruit-batsIf you’re Eric D. Johnson, you can make any song your own.

Old Rock House, St. Louis

Chicago’s Fruit Bats escape easy categorization. Combining classic pop, Grateful Dead–like jam band shuffles, lush instrumentation, and psychedelic flourishes, their show at the Old Rock House was a real crowd pleaser.

Fruit Bats are essentially the work of boy genius, guitarist, and vocalist Eric D. Johnson, an indie journeyman playing such bands as the Shins and Califone. Johnson’s voice oscillates from a Shins-like soprano to an off-center Flaming Lips vibe.

The soggy crowd of about 150 people came in from the rain to enjoy a 15-song set that featured cuts from the band’s five full-length releases. Johnson’s backing band was comprised of some very talented musicians: guitarist Ken Barker, bassist David Dawda, keyboardist/vocalist Garth Keppert, and drummer Brian Kantor. Their contributions helped bring Johnson’s studio wizardry to life.

One song that especially stood out was “The Ruminant Band” from their 2009 Sub Pop release of the same name. This song perfectly encompasses Johnson’s quirky vocals and odd song structure. Parts of the song have an almost Dead-ish shuffle, but then slip into Flaming Lips’ territory. Other pop gems included the shimmering, Byrds-ish jangle of “So Long.” Johnson’s vocals were imbued with the sad vibe of George Harrison’s solo work on “All Things Must Pass.” Set closer “When You Love” sported a melodic, sing-along chorus and ’70s AM jangle.

The band came back for a three-song encore, including Johnson’s a cappella version of Whitney Houston’s mammoth hit, “I Will Always Love You.” A most unusual choice, unless you’re Eric D. Johnson and you can make any song your own.

Opener Joan Shelley captivated the crowd with a set of poignant, rootsy, acoustic music and her songbird vocals. She carries on the proud tradition of traditional folk music in the vein of Joanie Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Laura Nyro.

Together, both artists were the perfect tonic for warming the ears on a cold, rainy, dreary St. Louis evening. | Doug Tull

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