by Roy Kasten
Fruit Bats | Vetiver Off Broadway September 19, 2011
Most shows don't change your life; most don't even even rack up a couple of Instagrams on Twitter. Most are bands doing what they're paid to do and giving people what they paid to hear. The exchange can still make everyone feel good for a few hours, even if, on a San Diego in St. Louis Fall night, we were feeling pretty good already.
So it was last night for Vetiver and Fruit Bats at Off Broadway.
Or I could be wrong, of course, as neither band makes St. Louis a regular stop -- Vetiver hadn't been here in years, Fruit Bats not since an early set at LouFest 2010 -- and so perhaps this was the night the 150 or so in the club had been waiting for all summer long -- even as it was the Monday night of a week jammed with excellent concerts. Both are touring behind relatively new albums, The Errant Charm and Tripper, both records among the best of their careers, and both bands seemed just a little stunned by the reception.
One could say the same for opener Fairchildren, from Denver, who started out playing de rigueur torture-chamber folk, with Julie Davis on upright bass, and keys, drums and guitar the core of their slowcore. But Davis has a winning voice, mature and velvety, the kind of voice that were I the soundman I wouldn't have buried in the mix. Were I the light man, I wouldn't have kept her sex appeal in the shadows either. A cover of "The Gambler" was the last thing anyone expected, especially so utterly irony free and handsome that even the kids in the corner stopped giggling and hung on the last, dreamy notes.
Andy Cabic led Vetiver to an instrument-crowded stage at 9 p.m. for full set of over a dozen songs, each played with his mastery of '60s and '70s country rock, pop and soft rock tones, but also with the band's total understanding of rhythm. They get something about boogie in the way the Grateful Dead did, though they only need one drummer to get it. It's a shuffling, skiffling forward, easy and irresistible, especially on the Errant Charm songs "It's Beyond Me" and "Hard to Break."
A fellow KDHX DJ remarked, "It's a guilty pleasure, but I love that Dylan and the Dead album." He was at the right place, then, only one shouldn't imagine any of the space-out clichés, even on the more psychedelic, Byrds-influenced (no twelve strings, but the band employed both Rickenbacker guitar and bass) moments. Vetiver sounded lush and minimalist at once, absolutely like the records at times. The covers of the Go-Betweens' "Streets of Your Town" and Bobby Charles' "I Must Be In A Good Place Now" were welcome departures from pure, skill-soaked pleasures.
Eric Johnson, his favorite Hunter S. Thompson fishing hat pulled down over his eyes, seemed set on re-imagining the meticulous, somewhat brittle approach of Tripper, with three guitars, a spare percussionist, more Rickenbacker bass and keys. He leaned into new songs "You're Too Weird," "Tony the Tripper," "Heart Like an Orange" and "Dolly," with a sound that was hard to place, beyond the obvious but fully-internalized affection for the Velvet Underground and maybe the Smiths. The band gave them a wild and free dynamic range, more than one might have guessed from Johnson, the patient perfectionist. By the end of the night, he leapt from the stage to dance along with the audience.
Johnson apologized more than once for playing so much new material; he didn't need to, as the crowd pushed closer to the stage and hummed along, even if they were waiting for surrealism of vintage numbers like "Tegucigalpa" and "The Ruminant Band," saved for the encore, and the band's catchiest song, "When U Love Somebody," sung with that piercing voice, phrasing like blades through bright ribbons, but smiling through the blood in his mouth.
The singer and the band and the crowd understood something together: Good songs played well can be more than anyone needs and something we all deserve.