The transformation of a songwriting vehicle from an individual endeavor into a full-fledged outfit is one of the more remarkable progressions to behold.
Especially so when the person driving the operation is a genuine, gifted soul with a penchant for crafting songs that can captivate in an intimate setting, but yet can be expanded and embellished into prosperous compositions at the group level to engage a much more active audience in larger venues.
Fruit Bats, the musical motorhome of singer and guitarist Eric D. Johnson, used a red-letter, late-night appearance at 9:30 Club recently to demonstrate the entity’s continued evolution as a sophisticated, dynamic folk rock troupe and, now in its second life, possessing a rare wisdom and imparting spirit.
Taking the stage after 11 p.m. on April 23, Johnson wasted little time in getting in as many recent favorites as possible for an anxious audience that had been stretched right around the block waiting for the evening’s earlier show to wrap up. A convincing, uplifting set made that effort a rewarding one, as Eric’s outstanding squad of musicians presented lively versions of songs from as far back as the 2003 Fruit Bats studio release, Mouthfuls.
“A Lingering Love” from Gold Past Life, one of the early selections of the night, glowed and ascended as pleasant and nostalgic and with a wider dimension than might be heard on the album. Dressed in a dark suit, his hair long and already sticking together from a sweat, Eric by this third song was already moving about the stage, coaxing animation in his talented and dedicated crew.
Stream Fruit Bats’ recently released collection, Sometimes a Cloud Is Just a Cloud: Slow Growers, Sleeper Hits and Lost Songs, via Spotify:
Guitarist Josh Mease, though mostly to himself stage right, revealed he is indeed the source of some of the increasingly attitudinal electric guitar sounds in recent Fruit Bats recordings. At 9:30 Club, Josh was workmanlike with the Telecaster in creating lyrical, heightened solos or interjections, like he relayed in “The Rock Doc” and later, a roving honky-tonked tinged “My Sweet Midwest.”
Much like Mease, bassist David Dawda was intently focused, and his notes seemed to stretch within themselves to add essential character to the timelessly groovy “The Bottom of It” from Gold Past Life and “You’re Too Weird” from 2011’s Tripper.
Drummer Josh Adams, who is credited on an impressive list of outstanding albums, showed a range of speed and touch, and his timeliness in helping create crashes or vanishes made this rendering of Fruit Bats advanced and rewarding for those taking in the performance.
Pianist/keyboardist Frank LoCrasto, a noteworthy addition to the touring band, is a composer himself and has recorded with the likes of Cass McCombs and Parquet Courts. The bright and sought-after musician was in a handsome maroon uniform, stage left, and provided foundational sound and calculated fabric in each song. He gave “Absolute Loser” new color with its gradual rise and then natural shift into an indulgent and rustic roam. Later, he’d help intensify numerous guitar-heavy explosions to make this unit more formidable on stage than one might expect.
“This show is LATE,” Johnson laughed and shook his head at one point as he tuned his guitar and the clock was well past midnight. It was one of just a few momentary interludes. Eric has brought Fruit Bats to the nation’s capital in the past, but he pointed out that this assemblage actually played its first live gig together in DC.
“We kind of got our start here,” he smiled. “It feels special to be at 9:30 Club.”
Formed way back in the mid-late 1990s as his own side project, Eric was a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and the leader of a band named I Rowboat when he began formalizing the earliest edition of Fruit Bats, the one that went on to sign with Sub Pop Records in 2002 to launch Johnson’s bizarre yet astounding musical quest, which eventually included a stint as a guitarist with The Shins from 2007 to 2011.
Watch the music video for Fruit Bats’ 2021 single, “The Balcony,” via the band’s YouTube channel:
Though he abandoned his plans to become a filmmaker in his younger years, Eric would circle back to his passion for motion pictures — he was asked to score Max Winkler’s 2010 film Ceremony, and then the following year compiled the soundtrack and create original music for the 2011 comedy Our Idiot Brother.
After a bit of a hiatus following a November 2013 announcement that Fruit Bats was disbanding, Eric — perhaps giving in to encouragement not just from fans but his wide network of influential friends in music — got the band back together for a run of opening dates with My Morning Jacket in 2015, which led to a return to the studio and the creation of 2016’s acclaimed record, Absolute Loser.
Since then, Eric seems to have only grown more prolific, scoring or collaborating on the music accompanying several films and along the way even making appearances in movies and garnering some high-profile voice work for himself. Most notably as of late, he’s been applauded for his work as one-third of the Grammy-nominated traditional folk band Bonnie Light Horseman alongside Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman.
Stream Fruit Bats’ 2021 Merge Records studio release, The Pet Parade, via Spotify:
Johnson’s a regular at events like the Newport Folk Festival, and he was a grinder during the pandemic: he remotely recorded his second Merge Records studio album, The Pet Parade, with Kaufman’s production assistance; Eric put out a complete-album cover of Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins, and, while helping bring Bonnie Light Horseman to prominence, he joined Phil Lesh & Friends for a string of shows in fall 2021. And at the beginning of 2022, he put out a Fruit Bats collection, titled Sometimes A Cloud is Just a Cloud: Slow Growers, Sleeper Hits and Lost Songs (2001-2021).
Now, at the age of 45 and with so much under his belt, Johnson has become an entrusted leader, an enduring quarterback of indie folk scene who still draws from the distinct influences of 70s rock and pop, psychedelia and alt-country.
As his fans surely hope, the exhilarating and compelling show at 9:30 Club speaks to a band on the rise, riding a powerful second wind. Some of the musicians teaming with him at 9:30 Club were just wee lads when Fruit Bats was getting its start. All of them clearly confident and adept musicians, they still seemed to look to Eric for signs of approval in what were the most unforgettable moments of the show.
Rounding out the set with the gorgeous and brilliant escapist piece “Drawn Away,” Eric and his group ultimately ended the block with “When You Love Somebody,” recorded way back in 2003 on Mouthfuls and featured on the film Youth in Revolt in 2010.
Watch the Fruit Bats performing the single “Eagles Below Us” during the band’s Icehouse Sessions appearance via YouTube:
And with 1 a.m. quickly approaching., the band still squeezed in an encore, returning to the stage for fulfilling take on “The Balcony” from The Pet Parade before bidding farewell with one of the most heavily-streamed Fruit Bats tracks to date, “Humbug Mountain Song” from Absolute Loser.
“Thanks so much,” Eric waved to the crowd as some members of it pleaded for more. “We love you guys.”
Though it has taken different shapes in its existence, even surviving a bit of an early retirement, Fruit Bats’ constant has been its character, the man behind the curtain. Built on Johnson’s enlightening, jubilant and extremely attentive songwriting, the songs are and will always be distinguished by his unmistakably sweet pitch and a native, rapid fluctuation.
But now bolstered by what is arguably the best band he’s put together, Johnson’s longest-running project is finally reaping the benefits of 25 years of hard work and nurtured relationships. With what appears to be vigor and a healthy trajectory, one can only hope Eric has no intention of concluding the Fruit Bats saga any time soon.
Slightly Incomplete Setlist (we gave our best effort here — as Eric pointed out, this was late at night):
First song, not identified
Second song, not identified
The Rock Doc
Didn’t identify this one, sixth song – wicked guitar solo here
The Bottom of It
You’re Too Weird
On the Avalon Stairs
Tony The Tripper
New song (didn’t catch name)
Didn’t identify this one, 15th song – nasty guitars, waterfall synth
When You Love Somebody
The Balcony (encore)
Humbug Mountain Song (encore)
Here are images of Fruit Bats as well as the night’s opener, Johanna Samuels, performing at 9:30 Club the night of April 23. 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.