all photos: Lauren Bulbin
all words: Colin Wilhelm
A sold out crowd packed the 9:30 Club Sunday, all there for soul/indie pop group Fitz and the Tantrums. My curiosity was piqued. Who were these masters of soul that packed the 9:30 Club on a Fall night when most Washingtonians are mourning another Redskins’ loss, recovering from extreme apple-picking, or preparing for a long week of constituent relations? Lights dimmed, band members entered, anticipation built and…the World’s Greatest Wedding Band started playing.
Lead man (Michael) Fitz(patrick), and his Tantrums, initiated a set of almost entirely sterile crooning. “For some bands, it takes a lifetime to build this success, but few performers deliver an unrestrained blast of soul-clapping, get-down-on-the-floor, moneymaker shakers like Fitz and the Tantrums,” writes a vastly overselling PR intern. While many in the crowd were moved to claps and some light swaying, nothing about Sunday’s show moved me towards the kind of uncontrollable ecstasy described above.
Please don’t mistake my intentions here. I did not enter this concert to write the typical snarky, too cool for everything, hipster hatefest that so many (myself included) despise. But once I heard Fitz and the Tantrums start playing, I couldn’t help but think, “this is to soul as Dane Cook is to edgy comedy”. That analogy goes beyond the thin veneer of limp yacht rock disguised as soul these guys play: they also go out of their way to interact, appeal (a cynic might say pander) to their crowd, just as a certain brotastic comic does. “D.C. are you having fun yet?”, the talented Noelle Scaggs technically asked but really proclaimed after every other song.
At the end of the show Fitzpatrick implored everyone to stay for an autograph and meet and greet session after their last song; and it can be said he seemed appreciative towards those who support them of his newfound musical success. He and the Tantrums have topped Billboard’s “Heatseekers” chart (which is still means success, even in today’s moribund record industry) and he comes across as a bit of an underdog story in the band’s About/Origin Story/Mythologizing webpage (linked to above): a sound engineer who longed to be a musician finally takes the big leap and finds near overnight success after one five-song EP1.
After reading that personal story, and the appreciative bordering on salesmanship interaction with the audience, why am I criticizing the simplistic and gratingly repetitive song structures, thin lead vocals (from Fitz), and mostly tepid music to the point where it probably comes across as mean-spirited? Because everything they did, aside from the mediocrity, seemed calculated.
Maybe it’s an unintentional byproduct of Fitzpatrick’s production background, but everything seemed choreographed, manufactured, rather than organic. Even when Fitzpatrick added spoken forewords before songs, sharing insight into fairly broad messages, it was so generic that it came across more as something he said because the audience expected it rather than authentic story-telling.
There were redeemable moments and songs, such as the band’s set-closing performance of their enjoyable ‘hit’ “MoneyGrabber”, the new (as yet unreleased) “Love Sick Man”, which was their best-written song in my estimation, the saxophone of James King. But none of this made up for the fact that this band travelled the same neo-soul territory that Maroon 5 covered more adeptly long ago, back when they actually gave a shit.
Of course the crowd seemed to at least mildly enjoy much of this, and appreciated several songs with quite a bit of enthusiasm. And it’s not that I hate the genre of music they play. D.C.’s own Poor But Sexy is a great example of a band that plays the same genre cross-section vastly better. Of course, people sometimes want light and fluffy, simplistic and extremely repetitive music. It’s just easier, and doesn’t challenge a listener the way go-go drums and outsized synthesizers do on PBS’ “Cherry Delicious”. Bands, even mediocre ones, find broad appeal for a reason.
Openers Walk the Moon sounded like they grew up listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 12-inchers played at the same time as Duran Duran cassettes, though their manager has now told them to play more like the Killers. While this combination didn’t produce anything entirely memorable, a lot of the show was entertaining. If WtM further explores the folk harmonies over 80s pop sound that they touched upon several times, it has the potential to navigate some intriguing musical territory.
They certainly tried on a risky, interesting cover of Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal”, played as if the song had been transported back to Miami in 1983 [it kind of worked]. If they could move further out of the long-cast shadows of other groups towards a more unique sound they’d be a band to go out of one’s way to check out, but as of now are more one you wouldn’t regret showing up early for.