Aftermath made it to Walter's just in time to catch the last gasp of News on the March's opening set, a hyperkinetic barbershop quartet vamp about a pretty lady. The energy from just that one parting song was enough to make us wish we'd made it a bit earlier. We didn't have time to snag a picture, but couldn't help noting that bassist Brent Randel looks a bit like Blaggards drummer Mike McAloon. Death Vessel mounted the stage next, replacing NOTM's cellist with a double bass, fiddle, banjo, and electric ukelele. It was a smörgåsbord of strings. The band got things rolling with a noirish number that felt a bit like Bob Wills on a bad acid trip, with dark skies and strange beasts replacing rolling Texas vistas described from the saddle. From that promising start, Joel Thibodeau and band delivered a set that focused a bit too heavily on soft-spoken, introspective lyrics and gently strummed accoustic guitars. There were a few interlude moments where the band channeled the dark drone of Dirty Three, or the skronky feedback of father-son free jazz duo Peter and Caspar Brotzmann. Otherwise, Death Vessel worked best when they injected their sound with a bit more muscle, as on the rudementary Neil Young solo in the middle of "Bruno's Torso," and the knee-slapping fingerpicked guitar and banjo stomp that ripped through the middle of the set.
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That song also provided the best structure for Thibodeau's somewhat hard to like falsetto, pairing it against the strangely low vocal countermelody provided by his female violinist. We feel mean about it, but can't help mentioning that Thibodeau exhibited rather odd stage presence, with his metronomic whole-body bobbing, and bizarrely pained, and greatly exaggerated facial expressions. Fruit Bats wasted no time, launching directly into "Being on Our Own," the ideological centerpiece of their new album, as soon as they'd gotten all their gear set up. Eric Johnson started on keys, banging away emphatically as he dissected the differences between being alone and being lonely. The band kept things light and bouncy, providing the perfect sonic backdrop to an ultimately uplifting song. Album capper "Flamingo" followed next, with a much bluesier feel than on the album. That moment at the end where Johnson shifts from floating falsetto to gritty blues while promising that "everything, everything's gonna be just fine" works even better live than on the album, a moment of intense dynamics. From slowed down to sped up, the band followed up with "My Unusual Friend," which we happen to know is about Johnson quitting smoking. Here, the rollicking, double-time beat and extended vamping came off more like a fond remembrance than a lament. As with all things Fruit Bats (at least in its latest incarnation), these songs are all about finding the positive. A couple of earlier album cuts filled in the middle of the set, ranging from the Band-styled country-rock rave ups to gently strummy folk numbers injected with sunny seventies guitar solos, as on "Canyon Girl." "Buffalo and Deer" brought a joyful, laconic feel to the room, as Johnson waxed rhapsodic about sunshine, blue skies and lazy days. A better back-porch, beer-sipping song would be tough to find. Back to Ruminant Band album cuts with "Primitive Man," with strummy guitars, bright melodies and a few choice lyrics that inspired our companion to grab our notebook and jot them down. In particular, "and the sky was a monster made out of tears" seemed to grab her. The introspective lyrics were played against a backdrop of up-tempo rock reminiscent of a country version of the jittery punk of the Feelies. Great stuff. The Houston crowd seemed particualrly enthusisastic during "Born in the 70's," from spelled in bones, as Johnson sang about Georgia peaches and Texas tea. Soon after that, the Bats exited stage left, leaving Johnson and guitar on stage to close the set with "Singing Joy to the World." As the volume lowered onstage, the crowd chatter swelled, adding a poignancy to the lyrics of gently willful self deception, with Johnson singing through the noise as if he couldn't even hear it, though we all knew it was there. With that, Johnson thanked the audience and dismounted the stage, returning shortly thereafter to chants of "Bats Rule." "The Earthquake of 73," "Blessed Breeze" and another solo number closed the set for real. Throughout, the Fruit Bats felt more like a band than ever before, with strong interplay between the musicians feeding the general vibe of good will. Plenty of 70's country-rock inflection, brightly chiming guitars, twangy pedal steel that somehow sounded breezy instead of mournful and Johnson's effortlessly lovely voice all came together for a set that could be registered with the FDA as some sort of over the counter anti-depressant.