Credit: Rebecca Horrigan

The last time the Fruit Bats came to Santa Barbara was in 2019. A lot has changed, but their tight musicianship, captivating songs, and charismatic performance haven’t wavered. 

I’d argue the Fruit Bats, Eric D. Johnson’s songwriting project, sounded better than ever before at their SOhO show last week. Many things stopped in 2020, but Johnson kept the music cranking, creating a new Fruit Bats album, The Pet Parade, released in March 2021, and a 2-LP compilation.

As a result, Johnson and his powerhouse band were more than ready to take to the stage and perform. The packed house reciprocated the electric excitement with an almost wild Wednesday night energy, crowds of locals thrilled to be out on a weeknight and taking in such fine musical chops. 

Opener Esther Rose provided a sweet entryway to the evening with her alt-country twang, solid guitar, and lovely lilting vocals. From there, the Fruit Bats kept the country-rock vibes but kicked things up a notch. From the first note of the rollicking “Lingering Love,” the five-piece act hit the ground running, rarely pausing to take a breath (except to change a broken guitar string; perhaps a testament to their verve). Other highlights included “Absolute Loser,” which was anything but, buoyed by a free-wheeling keyboard solo. I couldn’t believe that it was their first time playing the wistful yet upbeat “Cub Pilot” live, as the catchy tune feels like a hug, so warm and familiar. 

The band’s setlist ran the gamut of old and new, but even older tracks like “The Rock Doc” from 2016, which pleads, “Just try to love, and you’ll be loved,” felt imbued with new life. The band was thrilled to be sharing these songs live. With each vibrant, danceable tune, that lyric about love became more prophetic: the love from the audience was apparent, and the Fruit Bats gave it right back in every note.

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