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 The peppy blue-eyed soul sound that Fitz & the Tantrums originally made their mark with when they arrived at the 2011 Basilica Block Party has grown slick and stadium-sized in 2013, but it makes sense within the context of their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.