Fruit Bats photo from Flickr user t-dawg

Review by Aaron Sankin

Under Eric Johnson’s porkpie hat sits a head full of deep thoughts. Johnson is the lead singer and creative force behind Fruit Bats, who headlined a solid evening of indie rock at Slim’s last Friday night. Fruit Bats called their latest album The Ruminant Band, which suggests a bunch of chin-stroking English majors mulling matters philosophical more than it does people who actually stand on stage and rock. Luckily, while their country-flecked live show is certainly cerebral, the sound is much more muscular than that implies. Front-loading their set with crowd-pleasers like “The Ruminant Band” and “Canyon Girl”, the band was a fitting capstone to a night that owed as much to 1970s Laurel Canyon as it did to the usual canon of indie rock touchstones.

[audio:] Fruit Bats – “The Ruminant Band”

The first band of the night was Extra Classic, who play a reverb-soaked combination of dub and rock. Singer Adrianne Verhoeven, formerly of Kansas emo band, The Anniversary, sure can wail — highlighting the band’s trip-hop flourishes, Verhoven often sounds like an American version of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons. While the group was endearingly earnest, the whole thing didn’t always cohere. At points, it sounded like the rhythm section was in a different band than everyone else, making the proceedings too rhythmically crowded (a much graver sin when playing something with a reggae vibe than in virtually all other genres of music). That said, this didn’t bother everyone coupling up and spinning in circles like it was a middle school dance during some of Extra Classic’s more ethereal compositions.

[audio:] Citay – “Mirror Kisses”

Next was Citay, a big, seven-piece band of San Francisco locals who had just come back from playing the Echoplex in LA. With everyone but the drummer lining up on the lip of the stage, Citay gave the visual impression of a solid wall of humanity, which is actually a good snapshot of their whole atheistic. The band produces a wall of sound, from which individual instruments occasional break out and then fall back in line. With a lineup and style like this, there’s a danger of getting mired in a murky sonic void if the arrangements aren’t carefully plotted to give each individual element enough space. It’s a testament to the band’s artistry, though, that every song always maintained an internal logical consistency, even when there were seven people rocking out as hard as they could.

Like fellow locals Wooden Shjips, Citay is at it best when in the midst of a soaring guitar solo, often recalling the late, great Widespread Panic guitarist George McConnell. Whereas Wooden Shjips start with a simple blues riff and smother it with enough guitar squall to please Thurston Moore, Citay takes the classic rock of Fleetwood Mac and Elvis Costello as a starting point and piles on the noise, equal parts Allman Brothers and Yo La Tengo, from there. While the band has a tendency to make every tune sound like Costello’s “Tokyo Storm Warning”, this is: A) not necessarily a bad thing and B) perfectly forgivable when songs reach orgasmic heights with anything close to the regularity that theirs do.

After Citay, came Fruit Bats. Years ago, I saw the band open for The Shins at the Great American Music Hall and the 2010 band is light years away from the one I’d seen before. Fruit Bats have beefed up their sound to something powerful enough to blow people’s brains against the back wall every so often, but agile enough to immediately shift back to a pleasant groove without anyone batting an eyelash. Johnson, who is now a full-time member of The Shins, sounds eerily like James Mercer, that band’s lead singer, only with a more soulful croon.

One of the smartest things a band can do is pick its covers really well and Fruit Bats did just that. They masterfully threw Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” into a pit of dissonant noise and gave a true-to-the-original treatment to Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, a song made famous by The Byrds on their country album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

“The first time the Fruit Bats played San Francisco, it was nine years ago. It was at Bottom of the Hill and there were ten people there,” Johnson reminisced with a laugh. “Also, I fell off the stage.” This time, playing to a mostly packed crowd, things went, to put it mildly, much better.