"Lawrence is good," ruminated Eric Johnson at the mic stand.
He sounded surprised. "I like this town," he said.
Larryville can be quite charming when it wants to be; and last night, the romper-clad college kids were drunk, dancing, and loving on Johnson's band -- indie-folk pioneers Fruit Bats -- hard. Johnson must have been digging Jackpot last night, too, where the band rolled out a set of songs for the first time in the Kansas City area; like many good first dates, it turned out to be a late night.
The band didn't take the stage until after midnight, following a contemplative series of aching pop songs from Lawrence's Hospital Ships (featuring Katlyn Conroy on vocals) and a smoky acoustic set from Nathaniel Rateliff. "Well, I fucked that up," Rateliff mumbled, after shuddering to a stop in the middle of a song. It didn't matter. Rateliff's belting conquered all -- even the howling group of frat boys that insisted on pointing at Rateliff and singing along to every syllable. (Whatever works, man.)
By the time Fruit Bats took the stage, the crowd was sweaty, boozy and packed. Fruit Bats was out supporting its newest release, 2009's markedly light The Ruminant Band, and the band looked positively beach-y for the occasion: Johnson sported a mini-straw Fedora type thing and a leather necklace, and the rest of the band hopped and bopped along to bouncing, poppy versions Fruit Bats' tender folk songs. It seemed like older gems like "Seaweed" and "The Wind That Blew My Heart Away" wouldn't be able to withstand a garage-rock makeover; but Johnson and his band muscled an electric heft into its acoustic tunes, making for something that sounds, admittedly, bizarre: a Fruit Bats dance party.
Johnson's nasal wail ranged from a Jack White-like cry to a slinky wail fitting for the Kinks. Towards the end of the night, when the band let loose on slide guitar, shades of Creedence even bled through the frontman's howling vocals - in a good way.
"We'll be back really soon," said Johnson, before the band launched into its last two songs: "Beautiful Morning Light" and "When U Love Somebody." (The latter -- a hit in faux-indie movies and commercials -- had some serious rock swagger, boasting a churning beat and killer slide guitar. Take that, Michael Cera.) "We can't say why yet," he hinted coyly. Until next time, then, Fruit Bats.
Personal Bias: I've liked Fruit Bats since I stole -- ahm, borrowed -- the band's albums completely legally and not at all in secret from my college roommates in 2005. I think the song "Born in the 70s" is, for absolutely no reason at all, sheer genius. Fruit Bats did not play this song last night. Does this count as a bias? Absolutely.
Overheard in the Crowd: One girl lost her shit when the band hopped off stage, rushing to the front of crowd and distraughtly crying: "When U Love Somebody! You forgot to play When U Love Somebody!" It's called an encore, sweetheart.
Random Notebook Dump: "Frontman's guitar hip-thusts? Awkward or hot?" Johnson soaked his shirt with sweat, and had some definite gyrations going on. The jury is still out on whether or not it was pleasant. (My roommate, who called him a "unicorn of indie rock," definitely weighs in on the positive side.)
Sadly Incomplete Set List That Is Most Likely Prone to Error, My Apologies:
The Wind That Blew My Heart Away
A Bit of Wind
Sing Joy to the World?
Jump Into the Fire - Harry Nilsson
My Unusual Friend
Beautiful Morning Light
When U Love Somebody