Fitz & the Tantrums House of Blues, Dallas Thursday, July 24, 2014
Pop music has always been interested in making us dance. Pop stars, not so much. If it was up to the average star, pop music would only be found in the aisles of sold-out arena shows, or on the edge of your (uncomfortable) seats -- and definitely not on the House of Blues' dance floor, amongst a cheery, sweaty crowd. You only needed one glance at the sea of grooving bodies on Thursday night to know that Fitz & the Tantrums take their pop status very seriously.
Their hour-long set was decorated with movement -- mainly that of the lead vocalists Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs, who led their band through the set list with an almost frenetic, grooving energy. They danced around each other, around their band members and as close to the crowd as possible, trading off moves comfortably and sharing each other's space. When the night started off with the outfit's funkiest records, "Get Away" and "Don't Gotta Work It Out," Fitzpatrick and Scaggs were the immediate life of the show, and remained that way until its end.
Nothing about the show was particularly complicated: you just had to move. Encouraging the crowd was the band's collection of soul-tinged pop hits from their two full-length records, 2010's Picking Up the Pieces and 2013's More Than Just a Dream. Unlike most sets, the songs came in a deliberately loose mix, flowing easily into each other.
It might have felt uncomfortable for those expecting a chance to clap or to cheer, but it seemed just fine for the band's instrumentalists, who were more than content to keep the groove going. Bassist Joseph Karnes, drummer James King and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna all have their special place in creating Fitz & the Tantrum's captivating sound, and not much is said for their knowledge in soul and funk. As Scaggs and Fitzpatrick drove their pop sensibilities forward with catchy hooks and rolling verses, the three matched them tit-for-tat, weaving in bright piano riffs and a studied, steady drum line.
But the hidden star was James King, the band's celebrated saxophonist and the music's obvious jazz presence. Every song was punctured by a King mini-solo, eliciting cheers from the audience without fail. Throughout the set, you could often find King switching his instruments, eventually trading his saxophone for a flute, a keyboard and even a guitar. You may not notice King much in Fitz's visual work, but on stage he is a lightning rod for adoration, and a clear crowd favorite.
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For all the musical talent the band wields, you'd think they'd be content with resting on those laurels. Anyone can play soul or jazz, and pop music has never been shy about borrowing from the greats before them. It takes a special understanding of either genre to avoid standing on the shoulder of giants, which is essentially what Fitz & the Tantrums avoid. Their sound is their own, from Scaggs' dependable tambourine to King's rolling melodies on saxophone and guitar, each carefully crafted with their influences in mind.
"Spark," for example, easily mixed surf pop soul claps and the high-pitched buzz of a funk guitar; "Fool's Gold" continued the soul claps, but with smooth synths and Fitzpatrick's devastating lyrics. Their rendition of the Eurymthics' 1980s smash hit "Sweet Dreams" captured original vocalist Annie Lennox's mystery but none of her brood. (In fact, there might not be a brooding bone in Fitzpatrick's body.)
Distinctly more "new-wave" than most of the other songs in their set, "Sweet Dreams" was a blatant reminder that much has changed for the group since their 2010 debut: new sounds have been introduced, and influences fully explored. Yet the band is cognizant of their synonymy with funk and pop these days; much like their 2013 album, they mix the two worlds (and several others) to the instrument, both techno synth and guitar riff.
Their most straightforward soul-pop hit was "Money Grabber," introduced by Fitzpatrick's soulful wail and a sassy tambourine. As one of the outfit's biggest hits, it didn't need an introduction (thttp://www.dallasobserver.com/locations/house-of-blues-437380/he crowd was pumped before the first chorus even started), and was completely recognized by the crowd by Ruzumna's chunky piano chords. Coupled with the bubblegum pop and saccharine whistles of "The Walker," it doubled as the show's peak and outro, no doubt sending patrons home with a renewed energy.