Fitz & the Tantrums at Varsity Theater, 6/17/13
Fitz & the Tantrums
with Saints of Valory and Ivy Levan
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Monday, June 17, 2013
Fitz & the Tantrums could write the textbook entry on how to turn a Monday night show into a party. Flying high on their radio-baiting new album More Than Just a Dream, the band confidently willed their sold-out but self-concious audience into an all-out dance party, the likes of which the Varsity Theater probably won't see again any time soon. The peppy blue-eyed soul sound that Fitz & the Tantrums originally made their mark with when they arrived at the 2011 Basilica Block Party has grown slick and stadium-sized in 2013, but it makes sense within the context of their aerobic live show.
Frontman Michael Fitzpatrick and his dynamic vocal partner Noelle Scaggs shot past the rafters and the back of the room with their soaring new melodies, each one designed for maximum impact so that every voice couldn't help but sing along. The band's sincere commitment to making a memorable and entertaining evening for their fans was palpable, and showed an incredible amount of heart. But their set also proved that it's possible for a band with so much heart to still lack soul.
Soul is one of the most elusive qualities in all of live performance. That intoxicating mix of pride and positivity against the backdrop of struggle and sufferation seems almost impossible to learn or perfect. Instead, it's felt intrinsically -- something you either have, or you don't -- and the four ruggedly handsome men that made up opening act Sons of Valory definitely didn't. The Austin-based band's music appears to be a grab-bag of trendy textures delivered with undeniable conviction and very little self awareness.
Mostly trading in the kind of achingly earnest melodrama that's sweeping the modern rock charts these days, Saints of Valory often sounded tailor-made to soundtrack the melancholic portions off the next teen angst blockbuster. They seem to fancy themselves a bit of a world-music group as well, so naturally their set had to conclude with a four-man floor-tom drum circle. The band's big, epic hooks full of empty "whoas" didn't fall on deaf ears however, and seemed to warm the crowd enough for Fitz that their theatrical bow-out only felt a little over-the-top.
Despite the grooving piano intro of "Keepin' Our Eyes Out" to kick things off, Fitz and the Tantrums' set started a bit stiff as well. Easily one of the standouts on More Than Just a Dream, the song retains some of the '60s stylings of the group's debut that are missing on most of the dancefloor-oriented new material. Noticing that the energy levels in the room were a few levels below optimal, vocalist Noelle Scaggs redoubled her efforts, singing hard enough to put the whole team on her back, in a way that she would do all evening. If there was any justice in the world, Scaggs would be a massive pop-star in her own right, as she's easily the Tantrums' most charismatic member. With a sassy, Tina-esque croon and the dance moves to back it up, Noelle was part backing vocalist and part hype-woman, constantly imploring the crowd to dance, sing along, and scream like crazy.
Crowd participation is an integral part of Fitz's show strategy, but it's a testament to the man's showmanship that his efforts never felt put-on and were only occasionally corny. Preceding the group's defiant new single "Break the Walls," Fitzpatrick made everybody raise their middle fingers and deliver a hearty "Fuck You!" to "Everybody who says that you can't follow your dreams". Finally, the group seemed to hit their stride, and the follow-up, "Breakin' the Chains of of Love" was an awesome reminder of the infectious R&B that put them on the map.
With big saw-wave synths dominating the majority of their new album, Fitz and co.'s surprise cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" early on felt appropriate. Introduced by Noelle as "My favorite song that we do," and she certainly delivered in kind, spinning minimalism of Annie Lennox's vocals into a sultry Chaka-Khan-esque swagger. Sandwiched in between that enjoyable experience and another new standout "6am," the follow-up "House is on Fire" was the first song of the night to feel a bit hollow onstage.
Fitz looked a bit wooden and poker-faced despite the song's funkier beat, and some of the band's hype-moves felt a bit desperate. "More than Just a Dream," the title track and lead single, also failed to produce much in the way of fireworks until the two vocalists began to interact with one another rather than than just the audience during the song's breakdown. Singing directly into each other's faces with scintillating intensity, the dynamic duo used the undeniable power of their well-honed chemistry to take back control of the evening.
Moments like that one, unrehearsed and human, were more plentiful during the band's four-song race to the finish, but that persistent issue of soul kept nagging throughout the night. Even on earlier material like the thoroughly enjoyable "Dear Mr. President" with its chain-gang intro and the energetic closer "L.O.V.," it often felt as if their was an element of danger and vulnerability missing from the band's performance that could have really brought things to the next level.
Tension and release seemed to be the one classic soul trope that Fitz & the Tantrums couldn't seem to grasp, or perhaps just chose to forgo in favor of keeping things upbeat. While the ballad "Tighter and Tighter" is certainly a sad song, it didn't contain any of the world-weary heartache and pain of a true tear-jerker. Soul is music borne of the blues, and the struggle to overcome, and while the band was more than capable of extraordinary feats of showmanship, they left a whole lot of sweat onstage, but precious little blood.
Maybe it's too much to ask of a party band like Fitz & the Tantrums to get into the truly gritty stuff that makes soul music so vital. They're a dance band, and in those parameters the show was an outstanding success. During the encore, Fitz employed the classic "Shout" trick to make the whole audience crouch, humorously threatening to call anyone out who broke the trend. When the climacttic final chorus of "Moneygrabber" hit not long after, the entire room was jumping and screaming in excitement.
Another surprise cover, this time of the Raconteurs' "Steady as She Goes" might not have worked if the band's two vocalists hadn't delivered the song with such conviction, but the rocking chorus helped bring the energy up for a gospel rave-up finale on "News 4 U." Sincerely and humbly thanking the audience for all their support and love, Fitz waved goodbye and kept his promise to meet his fans by the merch booth for the rest of the night. Whether or not the band truly grasped the emotional weight of the soul music that they obviously love so much, that kind of commitment to your audience takes the kind of heart that's admirable in its own way.
Keepin' Our Eyes Out
Don't Gotta Work it Out
Winds of Change
Break the Walls
Breakin' the Chains of Love
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (Eurythmics)
House is on Fire
More than Just a Dream
Dear Mr. President
Tighter and Tighter
Steady as She Goes (The Raconteurs)
News 4 You
Critic's Bias:Loved their first album, mixed feelings on the new sonic directions.
The Crowd: Basilica Block Party patrons and dudes attempting to wear suits un-self-conciously.
Random Notebook Dump: According to Fitz, these two dates sold out faster than any other shows on the tour. Needless to say, they'll be back again soon.
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