. . . the sun like a high beam
In the rearview mirror, when the song comes
On the radio like a pre-programmed miracle
Amid the grim preaching and interference.
The theme song of your life when you were
The main character, and the film rolls out
On the reel of the road where billboards
For food and fuel, fireworks and casinos
Paint vague sensations of pleasure and danger
Awaiting your exit, the ever so often crawl
Of the same motels under the ever deepening sky.
from "A Mass Hallucination of Motels" by Stuart Dischell from Dig Safe
This begins with poetry because I headed to Atlanta in time to catch the last reading event of the Decatur Book Festival, my old friend Stuart Dischell reading along with two writers I didn't know, the audience populated by luminaries (in poetry, anyway) like Tom Lux and Ed Hirsch and new generation poets like Southern California's Jeffrey McDaniel and some guy in a stripper-festooned Clermont Lounge T-shirt who bought Stuart's new book Backwards Days when I did. But I quote from a poem that approximates what life must be like on the road for a touring band in the south, albeit romanticized a bit.
I left Stuart and friends because I needed to find my own room close enough to the Earl, and so the Motel six became my "same motel" and I left my bag and headed over to the club, where I dined until Andi came out from their sound check and filled me in, and her brother joined me with food and teaching shop talk. Her band, Night Driving in Small Towns, would open at 8:30 sharp with a 45 minute set, and then Death Vessel, and then The Fruit Bats. I recognized Ryan, sound genius from several Califone tours (and a terrific musician himself, according to Tim Rutili), who filled me in on all the news from Chicago's collective music scene. Congrats especially to new dad Joe Adamik!
Night Driving In Small Towns has become more adventurous since moving from Valdosta, where their blend of folk/indie pop originals and pitch-perfect Rilo Kiley and Feist versions made them local favorites and one of Rolling Stones top 25 unsigned myspace bands, to Atlanta and Lower 40 records and a big-city music scene. They were a bit nervous, since this was arguably their biggest gig so far and they were premiering three new songs of nine, so they came out fast, opening with brand new song "Holiday" right into "Restaurant, " a gorgeous torch song. The highlight of the set was another new song, "Serial Killer," which features Andrea Roger's incisive lyrics and a deft arrangement from Colby Wright, with Dan on bass and Tyler on drums pinning down the rhythm. They finished with "Kick," another new one with a terrific pop hook that had me singing along and wishing the new album was out already. (Fruitbats guitarist and keyboardist Ron Lewis was eminently pleased with how they folked up Lindsay Buckingham's "Holiday Road" with Colby on vox, stating that he always wanted to cover it and was pleased NDIST had the balls to do it.)
If you heard Death Vessel was playing next absent any context, you might expect something hardcore, something metal, and Joel Thibodeau looks the part a little--darkly gnomic, all in black, long stringy black hair, a certain intensity. But the presence of an upright bass, violin, and various folk strings quickly dispel any such misconceptions. Still, the moment Joel opened his mouth to sing startled me more than just about any sound I've ever heard at a live show. His voice is high. If Neil Young and Joan Baez had a eunuch lovechild, he would sing like Joel Thibodeau. But once you get past the strangeness, the beauty of it washes over and you relax into it. The set mainly focused around their new release Nothing is Precious Enough for Us, which the link will take you to, but, live, the sound was more expansive than the leaner production the album offers. "Jitterakadie" especially benefited from the fuller treatment, and with "Block the Eye" and "Bruno's Torso" anchoring it, Death Vessel's prog-folk set pleased a very receptive audience.
Eric at the merch table. Photo by Andrea Rogers.
Fruitbats came in fresh (wholesome boys from the Midwest, ya know) from finding out that The Ruminant Band had supplanted Wilco at the top of Billboard's college charts the week before, plus it was a big Sunday night crowd, so they were in a good mood and performed like it. Eric Johnson can also reach the higher registers, as he demonstrated capably in his the opening salvo with spirited versions of "Primitive" and "The Ruminant Band," the first two songs from the new album (a quiet one at first listen, but its complexity builds with repeated listening). Then through the rest of the show they moved back and forth in time through their oeuvre (though Echolocations was notably absent), hitting Spelled in Bones crowd pleaser "Canyon Girl," then back further into Mouthfuls with the doleful "Union Blanket" and the shambly "Rainbow Sign," which is as close as the Fruit Bats would come this evening to performing a song that suggests Eric's work with The Shins. "Rainbow" is slower, edgier, though. Then they returned to Ruminant territory with "Flamingo" and its antique piano feel and fatigued calliope circus chords. The upbeat pop of "My Unusual Friend" and honkytonk (think Leon Russell)"Feather Bed" rounded out the return to the pleasant present . They closed out the set with "Earthquake of 73," "Tegucigalpa," and the upbeat but bittersweet "When U Love Somebody" (". . . bite your tongue; all you get is a mouth full of blood") while the tall blond giantess kept rhythm pogoing through until the end and after, and because she was so tall and bouncy, the band came out and encored two from the new one, "Being On Our Own" and "The Blessed Breeze," which carried us out into the warm Atlanta evening after all the conversations died down and the merch was put away. The Fruit Bats, perhaps, are not going to change your whole life, but they are going to make you feel better and more connected to the one you're already living, whether through tears or laughter, irony or deadpan honesty. This was a terrific evening of music start to finish, then the road again, back to our respective motels, small soaps, white towels, all that smeared, clean light.