The Portland-based indie-rock band Fruit Bats certainly deserves your attention, even if the name doesn’t always ring a bell. Even the HiFi doorman cordially greeted me: “’Sup, man? You here to see Fruit Flies?”
In terms of masterful, textured arrangements and poetic, elegant lyrics, Fruit Bats are arguably the closest surrogate out there to The Shins. Johnson writes painfully visceral songs, many of them about solitude and loneliness, and much like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, can somehow turn them into a track that makes you want to dance.
The band, that played the HiFi Music Hall Friday night, Sept. 23, was opened by a solo show from Portland-by-way-of-Louisiana musician Kyle Craft, formerly the frontman of the freak-folk band Gashcat.
Craft commanded the HiFi stage with a harmonica, acoustic guitar and his mighty, dulcet tones. Craft’s solo album Dolls of Highland was released on Sub Pop records in April this year. As with most opening acts, the crowd was sparse; some leaned against the bar, others on the opposite end of the room. He’d introduce songs like “Pentecost” in jest, facetiously calling it a “smash hit.” Despite the genuinely good tunes, the only moving object in the whole venue was the leisurely gyrating disco ball, painting the room with lavender dots of light.
The Fruit Bats’ stage was decorated modestly, like someone had halfheartedly made an effort for a Halloween party or a séance: a few dozen tiny, pastel-colored LED candles were placed around the stage, bookending the keyboards and holding down the tacky blankets draped beneath the amps.
In “Humbug Mountain Song,” named for one of southern Oregon’s remote topographical sites, singer-songwriter Eric D. Johnson sings about looking at the sky: “Forgive me, but I don’t know if I remember enough to say what the air was really like that day — may have been clouds or sun. I don’t recall. I was young.” But tonight, there was no ambiguity surrounding Johnson’s song. There were no clouds, just pure, blissful clarity. HiFi is the perfect Eugene venue to see Fruit Bats due to the pristine sound quality, as the name suggests. Every texture in the tracks was immaculate: the slick guitar solos, the stellar keyboard melodies, the shakers and drums.
Johnson sported a formal, baby blue oxford shirt buttoned-up to his Adam’s apple and hair that passed his shoulders. During “Dolly,” he traded his guitar for a tambourine and hopped into the middle of the audience to dance with everyone. His magnetic charm makes him a natural showman, not so much like a mega-famous, egocentric rock star, but more like a good friend who stopped by to play a house show.
“This must be the best show we’ve had in Eugene,” Johnson smiled.
Fruit Bats’ keyboardist was also a delight to watch, like he still gets a kick out of singing back-up vocals to goofy lines like, “she came to him like a flip-flop floating on a wave.”
A few weeks back, Eric told me in an interview that his dream venue — although he was making it up on the spot — would be Pompeii, an answer that he said was directly inspired by the famous 1972 Pink Floyd concert film.
And HiFi, where the wall behind the stage is lined with 7-inch records that spell out the venue’s name, where the cement floors get sticky from spilled lager, certainly isn’t an ancient Roman amphitheater. It may not be Johnson’s dream venue, but seeing him gleefully dancing amidst his fans would make you think otherwise.
After the show, I approached Johnson at the merch table to thank him. He told me that the band has played several shows around Eugene — at the WOW Hall, at Sam Bond’s Garage — but this was easily his favorite to date.
“I wasn’t lying,” he said.
Watch the music video for “Humbug Mountain Song” by Fruit Bats below.