Fruit Bats founder and lead singer Eric Johnson landed his current lineup of ultra-talented musicians at Gundlach Bundschu Winery last Saturday night in Sonoma. Thirteen years after the band formed, Johnson is the only original member, and easily packed a century-old converted barn on their last stop of a short North West tour.
The Fruit Bats’ genre is more modern folk-rock than country, and their style is everything indie rock. Fans include plenty of thick-framed glasses and keys jangling on cut-off skinny jeans. But Saturday’s crowd was also full of area natives who clearly attend lots of winery concerts, decked out in hand-made wine bottle satchels, lounging on the rock wall overlooking Sonoma Valley.
Event impresario Jeff Bundschu, a sixth-generation winemaker and former Syllable Chase guitarist, curated the show as a sort of pre-party leading up to the winery’s Huichica Festival in early June. Apparently tickets for the two-day indie rock event have gone up a bit, and according to co-producer and long-time friend Johnson, this is mostly due to the prominence of this year’s Huichica lineup, which includes leading Sub Pop recording artists Beachwood Sparks and Paper Cuts along with Poor Moon and Andy Cabic from San Francisco’s Vetiver.
After singer-songwriter Garrett Pierce opened the show with his blend of lyrical folk rock and soft melodies, Seattle’s Gold Leaves followed with an unexpectedly remarkable set. Lead singer Grant Olsen, also known for being one half of Arthur & Yu, sets a dynamic tone with his deep ephemeral vocals drifting into gentle reverb. In concert, the band is more 1960’s jam-rock than the wistful expanse of their new album, The Ornament, but the high-energy solos kept the audience, already splendidly saturated in Gewürztraminer and Pinot, from nodding off to their sultry vibe.
Fruit Bats lead singer Eric Johnson is currently being backed by a menagerie of hired multi-instrumentalists. His demeanor as an accomplished bandleader keeps the mood of his shows animated and completely engaged with the audience. “I think we’ve kind of endeared ourselves to Sonoma. We do well in big cities, but we wouldn’t be able to pack a small market place, and this is the only small town we can come to and get some love. We sort of get treated like a local band,” said Johnson, after the show. “My wife is from Sebastopol, so I sort of weirdly have some in-law roots here – I kinda married into West County. I want to do a Sonoma County residency just because I dig it so much.”
Audiences got amped on the familiarity of “When You Love Somebody,” but the best live song was probably “The Ruminant Band,” where live, the extent of the band’s talent really shows. Everyone, except the drummer, switches instruments, while Johnson, normally on guitar, dances around the stage on tambourine. Their 12-song set was wholeheartedly received – the genuine love for this band is so tangible the barn walls were vibrating with the uninterrupted stomping of feet.
On the experience of playing in a giant barn: “It’s fuckin’ awesome because usually we only play the outdoor stage here; we played the last two Huichicas. It’s such a phenomenal place,” says current Fruit Bats bassist and former Shins member Ron Lewis. “The barn is kind of what the Pendarvis Farm festival wants to do in Oregon. It’s the vibe they are going for, but this far exceeds that.”