words + photos: Everly Jazi
On a candle-lit stage in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Eric Johnson and his band, Fruit Bats, played an decade-old song written just a few blocks away. Drubbing drums and Johnson’s happy-go-lucky tone hit the keyboard-heavy bridge on “Lives of Crime.” Johnson’s vocals tastefully faltered then rose back for the chorus, as the entire band hit a minor chord resolution.
The room, cowboy boots hanging, was full of people singing along. Charged keys started “When U Love Somebody,” and the acoustic guitar changes were heard on the fretboard beneath calming vocalizations. Johnson broke a string but kept going.
“This is Seattle. There are no posers in a Seattle Fruit Bats show,” Johnson told the crowd, “I'm getting my string changed so I'm going to just sing up here like Bono.”
Though the band played their most popular song third — “weeding out the posers” as Johnson joked — the audience stayed engaged. Johnson’s staccato “Dolly” garnered claps. He danced intimately with the microphone as the two guitarists riffed off each other during breaks in the verses. The drums held a raging shuffle beat and the synthesizer traded off with a tambourine.
The band slowed it down with the lazy ballad of “Primitive Man.” Two guitars and cymbals paved the way for Johnson’s solo bit. After a verse, the bass came in, following Johnson’s guitar progression closely. The band achieved a psychedelic tone without the studio album’s pedal steel.
Johnson broke the news that a summer album, ten songs, was in the works. He told them to prepare for the songs off Gold Past Life, deciding to pull them out at the Tractor Tavern.
“I'm not going to do them all at once because there's some dude in the corner saying, ‘No, don't write a new song ever,’” Johnson said.
The new track, “A Lingering Love,” brought in dramatic keys, disco drums and contoured vocals. The psychedelic guitar on the song rang all the way into the next track.
After a few other pieces off Absolute Loser, the band went into the upbeat “My Sweet Midwest.” The synthesizer was set to a trumpet-like sound, and it complimented Johnson’s voice as he called out on “my sweet,” then maintained the word “Midwest,” cooing. Guitars soloed left and right, the bass brought in harsher tones and the drum filled in after each chorus line.
“We're going to play a couple more and then we're going to go hide in a room close to here,” Johnson said, “And then we're going to play more.”
Right before the encore, Johnson’s bandmates left him to perform a soft, strummed “Baby Bluebird.” The crowd was completely silent, as if to hear the detail in each note.
After a break, the band came back, funky with the title track off their new release. “Gold Past Life” showed off Johnson’s full, soul-filled vocals, punching through bouncing organ-effect keys. After the song’s end, Johnson picked up the open-back banjo for the first time that night. Fruit Bats played a twangy “Humbug Mountain Song,” assuring the crowd the banjo was not just for decoration.