Fruit Bats offers journey into Johnsons mind

Quintet to grace Pickathon stage this weekend in Happy Valley
by: File photo A professionally designed canopy system provided shade for the main stage crowd on a scorchingly hot weekend at Pickathon 2009, held at Pendarvis Farms in Happy Valley.  This year’s event is set for Aug. 5-7.

Eric D. Johnson, leader of the indie rock band Fruit Bats, sings stories in a unique high tenor voice and has learned how to survive the ups and downs of the trendy music industry.

'If you stay true to what you want to do, people pick up on that,' he says.

Johnson hopes people will pick up Fruit Bats' fifth album, titled 'Tripper,' a meditative, tuneful record about hitting the road and the discoveries such a journey reveals.

It's apparent from talking to Johnson, 35, that he knows he'll never be as hugely popular as John Mayer or other folk influenced songwriters. He's a little bit too quirky to be a stadium rocker because he writes songs with unexpected yet intelligent tempo shifts and lyrically tackles various odd characters whose stories can take a few listens to digest.

However, Johnson does have the kind of no-compromise success that your average pop singer might envy. On his own or when playing with such bands as Portland's The Shins, Johnson has carved a comfortable niche in the indie music world. He has been tapped to compose film scores for such movies as the Uma Thurman comedy 'Ceremony' as well as play such marquee festivals as Pickathon, which takes place Friday through Sunday, Aug. 5-7, in Happy Valley.

Johnson says there's really no other festival around quite like Pickathon with its eclectic mix of acoustic flavored rock, country, blues, soul, old-time and folk music. Many festivals simply present the 'hottest bands' of the moment, he says, but Pickathon is a little more, well, picky.

'It seems like such a specific taste - which is definitely my taste, so I like it - it's a mix that makes total sense,' he says.

Kinks 'n' country

Johnson, who plays guitar and keyboards, will share the stage with

Ron Lewis on bass, Graeme Gibson on drums, Nathan Junior on guitar and Dave Depper on guitar and keys. Band members have come and gone in Fruit Bats, but Johnson is the one consistent factor.

Another consistent factor is how Johnson's voice impresses the listener. His pipes contain just a wee bit of indie rocker smirk combined with a healthy dose of earnest soulfulness and a lot of melodic sense. He notes that when he started singing in Chicago back in the 1990s, he was reluctant to be 'vocal-centric' until a band member told him otherwise.

'I was kind of strangulating my voice,' he says with a chuckle. 'But he said, 'Dude, you gotta sing! You can actually sing.' '

In time, he says, he became more relaxed belting out a tune.

'It's actually gotten more and more to where to I write to (my voice),' he says.

His songwriting idols include Ray Davies of the Kinks - 'the consummate storywriter' - and English folkie Roy Harper, a hero to Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and The Who. Johnson notes he's recorded one of Harper's better-known tunes, 'Feeling All the Saturday.'

However, the most important song Johnson may have ever sung was the theme to The Flintstones. Johnson had a yabba dabba do time when he was 16, winning a pre-show talent competition for The Jenny Jones TV show singing the cartoon tune.

'I wasn't a guest,' he says. 'The show was about kids who hate my parents. I don't hate my parents, I like them.'

He's also 'totally happy with my body of work,' but like any songwriter worth his or her salt, he's always restless.

'I always wish the album I'm working on now was my first.'

The Sadies part of this year's lineup

Now in its 13th year, Pickathon has grown into one of the nation's finest indie roots music festivals, featuring bluegrass, blues, acoustic rock 'n' roll, country and soul.

If you've been there, you know just how much fun it can be, with thousands of friendly folks dancing on the grass and whooping it up as each act, from rowdy to reflective, takes the stage. If you haven't been there, you're missing out on one of the best feel-good festivals this area has to offer.

The lineup includes gospel legend Mavis Staples as well as The Sadies, one of America's best rock 'n' roll bands.

Other acts include Lee Fields and The Expressions, Grupo Fantasma, The Builders and The Butchers, Corinne West and Kelly Joe Phelps, Breathe Owl Breathe, Dawn Landes and Eilen Jewell.

Pickathon takes place Friday through Sunday, Aug. 5-7, at Pendarvis Farm, 16581 S.E. Hagen Road, Happy Valley. Ticket prices vary.