Fitz & the Tantrums
November 15th at House of Blues Boston
By: Robert Steiner
If you’ve followed Los Angeles’ Fitz & the Tantrums for a while, you know that they’ve come a long way since their old-fashioned soul beginnings. Their 2010 debut album Pickin’ up the Pieces was a straightforward, catchy record with a vintage edge, taking pretty obvious cues from Stax and Motown. Two albums later, the band has moved closer and closer to a modern indie-pop sound, breaking out the synth riffs and modern studio polish in spades on this year’s self-titled record, which likely both won them new fans and alienated fans who preferred their earlier work. Regardless of where you stand on the band’s sound, Fitz have also been known to put on some pretty exciting and high-energy shows, so I was looking forward to seeing what they got at the House of Blues recently.
First up on the bill was London-based artist Barns Courtney, who had to take on the always-difficult task of being an unknown opener playing to people waiting for the band they paid for to show up. Courtney certainly tried his hardest to work the crowd, and he definitely had the stage presence to turn some heads. Walking out onstage with a 50’s greaser hairdo, a popped collar, and a slightly unbuttoned shirt, Courtney gave off that confident, 70’s rocker charisma without teetering over into self-serving parody other rock stars fall into (looking at you, Alex Turner). With a beat up acoustic guitar held together by duct tape and a simple bass-and-drums backing band, Courtney played stomping and anthemic songs heavy on blues-rock and gospel. Songs like “Hands,” “Golden Dandelions,” and “Glitter and Gold” were filled with heavy beats and catchy hooks; Courtney put all he had into every song to the point where he literally started bleeding on his guitar.
However, I feel that the odds were against Courtney on this one, mostly because in the context of the entire show, an acoustic led three-piece with a busking vibe didn’t really mix well with the sleek, indie-pop 6-piece as the main act. Courtney tried his hardest to talk to the crowd and gain their attention, but even with his charisma and wit, most of the crowd didn’t seem all that into it, and it reached the point where the in-between song banter began to drag the set a little. The final song, “Fire,” apparently called for a lot of clapping and singing along, as Courtney vamped the song a few times to remind us, but the reception just wasn’t there, making Courtney’s attempt to jump into the front row all the more awkward. While the set faltered because of audience ambivalence, you can’t accuse the guy of not trying, and the set did start off super strong. The energy and showmanship is there, and with a few more songs and less banter, I’d definitely be willing to see Barns Courtney in the future.
After the lights and confetti cannons were set up, Fitz & the Tantrums finally made their way to the stage and set the energy level high right away with the highly danceable “Get Right Back.” The crowd definitely woke the hell up for Fitz; people were singing along and dancing around despite the packed-in space. Whether or not you liked the band’s pop-heavy sound on their recent record, the new tracks mixed in with their older blues/soul songs made for a surprisingly varied set. Michael Fitzpatrick and co. hit a good amount of material from all three of their albums, which really helped the set stay fresh and showed the scope of the band’s musical talent and influences. “Moneygrabber” and “Don’t Gotta Work It Out” were two standouts from their first record and a nice throwback to their early days, “Out Of My League” was a definite crowd-pleaser that got everyone singing, and “Fools Gold” gained a lot more energy in the live setting that wasn’t there on the album. Even while the new material is pretty pop-y, it doesn’t sound like the band trying too hard to make it on the radio, and you can still hear those old soul influences if you pay attention. “Walking Target” has a bassline and drumbeat underneath all the synths and samples that screams “Motown,” and “Roll Up” has that horns-and-synth mix you hear other artists try to emulate to a lesser effect.
Aside from the music, the band themselves have a collective stage presence that is infectious, following the long-held soul music tradition of the concert into a sweaty, sax-filled dance party. The band gave plenty of chances throughout the night for saxophonist James King to take extended solos and really show off what he could do, and Fitzpatrick and vocalist Noel Scaggs (the self-proclaimed “bossy bitch of the band”) both brought lots of showmanship but never got in each other’s way. The two were acting more as dual lead singers rather than the usual lead/backup singer dynamic, and the undeniable chemistry between them was both playful and sensual, making the crowd go nuts with every exchanged glance. The band closed out the night with their most recent single, “HandClap,” and likely their most popular song, “The Walker,” setting off the confetti cannons and making everyone go crazy until the very last note. Even with a slow start and an initially unenthusiastic crowd, Fitz & the Tantrums got everyone out of their seats pretty easily, and overall made for a pretty fun night.
Be sure to check out an interview we did with Fitz & the Tantrums here.