By Jim Schutze
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Right now, Fitz and the Tantrums singer Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick is about 6 feet and change of focused enthusiasm in a very shiny suit, able to catch an audience in one agile hand and haul it from timidity to ecstasy in less than 30 minutes. If people aren't dancing by the time he and his Tantrums finish their set of pitch-perfect, sweet-stomping soul music, then they must've passed out somewhere along the way.
But before Fitz was Fitz, he was just a shy young guy at the local coffeehouse, playing his first show. That's where he had his breakthrough.
"I was staring at the ceiling and stiff as a board," Fitzpatrick remembers, "and I thought, halfway through the first song, 'If you don't start owning this, you might as well not do it!' You realize there are no second chances, so you better bring it."
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So that's how the six suited-up (or sequined-up, in the case of singer Noelle Scaggs) members have become such a vital part of a no-longer-secret American soul revitalization, standing fearlessly alongside acts such as Sharon Jones, Aloe Blacc, Eli "Paperboy" Reed and more.
Live, Fitz and Scaggs are absolute flamethrowers: If the crowd is chilly, they'll melt it; if it's already warmed up, the room will probably catch fire. Watching Fitz wave a hand and pivot on his toes, you'd never think he once couldn't even look an audience member in the eye.
Formed after Fitz rescued a vintage organ from an unceremonious trip to the local dump, the Tantrums released the Songs for a Break Up, Vol. 1 EP themselves, and then partnered with Dangerbird for last year's Pickin' Up the Pieces. Just as Sharon Jones and the rest of Daptone keep James Brown-style hard funk alive and wild in the 21st century, the Tantrums do the same for sweet Northern soul. Their colossal choruses, lattices of horns and harmony, and smashing drums could all have made the grade at a notoriously competitive label such as Motown. It's called "Tantrum-ification," Scaggs says with a laugh, and they can even use it to make a cover of the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams" into something all their own.
"You've gotta have an amazing backbeat, and you've gotta have something Noelle and I can really dig our teeth into," Fitzpatrick says. "When you put the combo of the six of us together, something really special happens. We give people a real joyful experience — permission to have fun and dance and get loose. And you get to see the guys shine. No playback, no turntables, just old-school, great musicians."
Sharon Jones once said that if you see her come offstage and she isn't sweating, you know she didn't feel it. Fitzpatrick and Scaggs laugh at that notion, if only because they're just the same way — and they pull their audience along with them.
"I've seen reviews by regular people who've started blogs, and one thing they'll mention is that we made them dance like nobody's watching," Scaggs says. "It's amazing to be part of that."
Adds Fiztpatrick: "We were doing a show in Minneapolis, and that night, we got a Facebook comment: 'I had one of the worst weeks of my life because my son committed suicide, and then I came to your show, and you lifted my spirit and saved me.' Just saying that, I get a ripple of chills. That emotional impact you can have on people — that's the beauty and power of music."