All photos by Lori Paulson.
Seabear, an Icelandic band, may have found a bit of fame due to some TV play on “Gossip Girl” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” but their success is likely reliant upon winning over the hearts of the northwest music scene’s bread and butter, the bearded flanneled indie folksters. Their appearance at City Arts Fest is fitting, warming up the crowd for the jaunty Fruit Bats and the seminal Portland experimental folkies Blitzen Trapper.
Lead singer Sindri Már Sigfússon has had some success as a solo artist, but over the last few years Seabear gained traction, and in 2010 they recorded their second album and embarked on their first American tour. Their sound has somewhat of a melancholy undertone, even beneath the more raucous upcharges. Lazy hushed beginnings dwindled on, the tinkling of the keyboard as forthright as Sigfússon’s mousy vocals, and then swelled into rambling cymbal-crashing sing-a-longs. The two female members of the band, on violin and keyboard, crooned beautifully together, reminiscent of Coco Rosie or Joanna Newsom in their childlike singy-songy approach.
Seabear showed a lot of restraint, limiting the guitar solos (unfortunately) and instead betting on sweet four-person chorusing and a strolling sunny indie folk sound, a bit of a lush orchestral Sufjan Stevens vibe. They sound oh so sweet, but when they shed the soft pretty pretenses and let loose they absolutely shined.
Eric D. Johnson sings with a heartfelt earnestness not often found in the indie rock world, most always accented with a hearty shake of his shaggy hair and a generous dose of foot stomping. Fruit Bats sound is unapologetically carefree and breezy, waggish enough to assume that everyone is as gung ho and ardent as they are. Their opening song, “The Ruminant Band” (title track from their latest album) barely got off to a start before electrical problems silenced everyone’s instruments except Johnson’s guitar and mic. Undeterred, Johnson starting singing solo, enthusiastically picking his guitar along with the song. Seemingly enjoying the humor of the situation, ending the song with a flourish, he commented “sorry for the chorus interruptus.”
Belting songs out with an inherent performer’s posture and sensibility, Johnson is obviously the heart of this band. Their wily guitar solos and free-spirited antics were sprawling, but Johnson’s evident charisma and zeal was the focal point. Guitarist Sam Wagster was quite the weapon, tall thin body folded over his guitar, white-blonde hair swishing with each impassioned stroke of his guitar pick. The easy twang of “When U Love Somebody” lit up the crowd, at least 1/4 of the audience mouthing the words along.
I’ve loved Fruit Bats every since I first heard the song “When U Love Somebody”. It’s catchy, sweet and poignant, a telling song reminiscent of their whole catalogue and sound. Fruit Bats aren’t an overtly technical band and they don’t take themselves too seriously, which are two huge components of their overwhelming charm. They easily exude a homey cheer, and the quirkiness of Johnson’s voice, and the gusto in which they perform just seals the deal.
Blitzen Trapper, quasi-folk mainstays via Portland, were the last in a four band string of awesomeness to take the stage Friday night for City Arts Fest. I’ve always gotten a folksy southern-fried vibe from their records “Wild Mountain Nation” and “Furr”, so was properly surprised when live they sounded much more electric than expected. Mounting the stage six strong, they instantly took the energy of the room and the previous performances up a mighty notch.
The pure enthusiasm of Blitzen Trapper was infectious, the packed Showbox full of tapping feet, dancing hips and shaking heads. Their performance style reminded my of the many-membered, multi-instrumental greats The Band, raucously strumming and drumming from the start to the very last drop. “Wild Mountain Nation” was a rouser, pairing twangy down-home sensibilities with lolling garage rock and beefy guitar solos. There’s almost no room for intricacies with this band… they play their style of lo-fi grit-laced Americana with no apologies, straightforward and with unerring confidence.
Eric Earley bravely led Blitzen Trapper, accompanied by spot-on falsetto vocals and the occasional pleasing resonance of the expertly played pedal steel. Their songs are built on guitar solos, a fact that I hadn’t ascertained prior to seeing them live. They also represented live as having a bigger and more atmospheric overall sound, leaving on an instrumental foot-stomping tangent now and again. With the cheery 60s pop aesthetic of the Fruit Bats and the promenading vintage folk sounds of Blitzen Trapper, I felt like I was in a musical time warp… a pitch-perfect slice of delectable musical pie.
Shrie Spangler is a writer in Austin.