The Bats , a talented band, is the brainchild of Missy Johnston, sprung from thought into reality a little more than a dozen years ago. The group’s name was born from the phrase “old bat” and Missy recruited members that were at least forty years old. “Old bat” usually references a woman of advanced years who is reputedly silly, annoying or slightly crazy. The Bats, however, are an ensemble comprised of five women and three men, none of whom are annoying, but all of which are habitually silly and only slightly crazy (in a ginchy, irreverent, fun kind of way).
There have been several Bats over the years but the current octet (Missy Johnston, Melanie Johnson, Marilyn Robie, Marianne Sherman, Susan Thomas, Craig Cornwell, Jim Gleason, and Harold Sherman) have been playing together since 2002. It is a group of smart, creative people, with like political persuasions, chemistry and kindred wit. The band made a humble start at a laundromat off Richmond Road and drew an audience of four with the scent of Downy hanging thick in the air. Between 2002 and 2004, the troupe regularly performed at the Coach House; the place where they came into their own and built an audience. Their gig at the legendary Lexington restaurant and lounge included three sets: a subdued performance utilizing indoor voices during cocktail hour, a funny performance during dinner, and a dance finale for the diners who wanted to burn off their meals after the plates were cleared from the tables. In January 2004, the Coach House closed and The Bats lost their venue. By March 2004, the entertainers found a new home at Natasha’s Bistro & Bar, a nifty place that accommodates a crowd of about 150 but provides the intimacy of a cabaret, a perfect spot for The Bats to commune with their audiences.
I was a Bats virgin until I saw the group perform at Natasha’s on February 11th. Wow, have I been missing out (and you too if you’ve never been)! I anticipated having a good time because I knew several people who had seen The Bats and loved them, but I did not expect to laugh as much as I did. Through 25 songs and for two hours straight. Out loud. Unceasingly – except to inhale. Laughter is really what The Bats play for – instant feedback that lets them know the audience appreciates the show (okay maybe this is a strong second to cash). And laugh you will. Craig is fond of saying, “We have a no laugh guarantee. If you don’t laugh, I guarantee something is wrong with you.”
Bats fans are strongly devoted to the group – the kind of fidelity that comes from a reckoning of life through common eyes. The Bats have found a niche with the over-40 crowd in songs (many are original compositions!) like Cosmetic Surgery, Dance To A Band, HDTV, If I Were You, Internet Love, Keep It To Yourself, Shattered Illusions, Viagra In The Water, and We’re So Vain. Enthusiasts also enjoy annual traditions such as the Holiday Sweater Smackdown and Halloween, when the band and audience wear costumes.
Missy, Marilyn, and Susan are the front line vocals. Melanie grooves on her way cool, Surf Green, 1957 re-issue of a ’57 Fender Stratocaster guitar while Marianne rocks on bass. Craig commands the drums, Jim strums the guitar and Harold tickles the keyboard.
Recently, I was able to spend a little time with the troubadours at one of their rehearsals. Melanie remarked in an aside to me, “This can’t be very entertaining; you’re watching them make the sausage.” To the contrary, I learned some interesting facts and it was fascinating to observe work in motion as the songsters perfected tone, accomplished cleaner transitions, and determined where timing trumped rhythm. Craig (“Louden’s Littlest Beatle” – the only boy in high school who could wear long hair) is the sheepherder; he focuses the group on their task. Harold (recorded a Christmas CD with Laura Bell Bundy and his first cousin’s daughter was previously married to Britney Spears’ uncle) is the technician; the quiet observer whose insights correct the tiniest of flaws. Marianne (played on a national championship rugby team) offers her shrewd observations with perfect comedic timing. Melanie (wants to perform on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, participated in Girl Scouts through high school, and can still wear her high school physical education cotton blouse – I promise, I saw it with my own eyes!) has an uncanny ability to deliver surprising lyrics with dainty, passive blinks and the gentlest suggestion of a smile on her face. Missy (would love to play the part of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is a wise, brilliant, spontaneous entertainer – the gift of a veteran. Accomplished Marilyn (set-list maker, in school the longest, and holds 3 of the group’s 18 degrees) brings understated humor to her craft, like when she slides her hands up and down the microphone stand as she croons, “…the best looking thing I’ve ever seen.” Classy Susan (helped launch “Chicken by George” and was tasked with rewriting songs with chicken lyrics) is fun to watch because she reflects the drama of a song in her face – especially when she’s yodeling. Jim was absent from rehearsal because he was on the road, but his adoring wife, Missy, states, “Jim is our "stunt" guitar player and advocate of sound musicianship. Just got his Ph.D. last year. He's compassionate, sentimental, kind, quick to laugh, and has great hair.”
You can purchase their CD, Some Settling May Occur, at Joseph Beth’s; book them privately (consult their website for information: www.thebats.net); or enjoy them at Natasha’s. Call 259-2754 to make reservations at Natasha’s; I recommend that you do so several weeks in advance because the house is always packed. Future play dates have been set for 2011: March 18, April 30, June 11, August 20, October 1, and November 11.Before I left rehearsal I asked the talented group if they could summarize their experience together in six words or less. Marianne offered, “More Fun Than We Really Deserve” and Harold suggested, “A Different Kind of Musical Theater.” This intention is what you have to look forward to. The moral of this blog? Treat yourself and go see The Bats. Take someone with you -- your mom who’s struggling through chemotherapy, your sister who is grieving a broken marriage, a PR client who has connections to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, your friend who worries about her brother serving in Afghanistan, or your spouse for a date night (laughter and a little alcohol are the beginnings of a great evening). I’ll see you there!