Review: The Fruit Bats Debut New Songs @ Mission Theater, Portland 2/6/09

Eric Johnson has always been a hard musician to pin down, whether it was the early country-psych-pop incarnation of his band The Fruit Bats or disappearing into his role as fifth member of Portland’s The Shins and sometimes member of San Francisco’s Vetiver.

Even his decision to put The Fruit Bats on hold in early 2006 seemed like a curious one – a momentum killer for a band that finally locked down a steady four-piece lineup and released an amazing nature/romantic tinged third album. Just when he decided to shelve the band, music fans realized they were one of the most compelling pop-rock groups combining great lyrics, tightly written songs and excellent musicianship.  Essentially they became The Shins, without the benefit of Zac Braff’s sloppy wet kiss.

There’s no indication as to why he wanted to put The Fruit Bats back together at this point in time.  Three years is a long time in the now and gone world of internet media. But if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say he built up some financial security playing with The Shins and missed his own creative outlet. He’s too good a songwriter and singer to be playing rhythm guitar for another band.

“I almost retired the Fruit Bats name, because this is such a different concept,” he told the Willamette Week. “But we decided not to. We couldn’t think of another band name, anyway.”

The different concept, a newly retooled lineup, rolled into the Mission Theater with a half-dozen new songs, several old favorites and proof that the most interesting aspect of The Fruit Bats hasn’t yet happened yet. 

The biggest difference in the new lineup is the addition of drummer Graeme Gibson, formerly of Chicago’s The Boas. He plays the drums in the same vein as Keith Moon, always attacking and pounding the kick drum with abandon – so much so, that he broke his snare midway through the show.

Nowhere was his addition felt greater than on “Rainbow Signs.” What was once a delicate mid-tempo song from second-album Mouthfuls was transformed into a jazzy triple-time country funk barn burner.

They closed the night with arguably their most crowd-pleasing number “When You Love Somebody” and then came back out for an encore cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless, Helpless.”

It’s fitting they closed with a Neil Young song. Eric Johnson clearly has a thing for Young, blending those traditions of country, rock, blues and folk. He also shares Young’s ability to damn the torpedoes and follow his unique musical path, wherever it takes him.

This isn’t even the same band, with the exception of Eric Johnson. Now The Fruit Bats are a confidant muscular rock band. Similar to their previous DNA, but now ready for their next evolution. They hop into a recording studio in two weeks to lay down tracks (several they played) for their fourth studio effort. It should be worth the wait.

New Song #2

Sorry I didn’t catch the name of this tune.


Of all the new songs, this and “Blessed Breeze” (which they opened the show with) sound like early highlights from the new album.

The Fruit Bats“Tegucigalpa (new song)”
The Fruit Bats“Untitled New Song”
The Fruit Bats“Helpless, Helpless (Neil Young cover)”

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