All words: Marie Formica — All photos: Kevin Carroll
Band “fun.” with hit single “We Are Young” played at the 9:30 club to packed house. “We Are Young” will extend to be the feel-good hit of the summer. I mean, the band’s name is “fun.” after all. Although why put a full stop after “fun”? Are you trying to stop the fun, fun.?
Before the show began, I noticed the usual mix of twenties and thirties-age people at 9:30 but, swelling at the foot of the stage and dotted throughout the club’s balcony I saw a lot of high-school age kids. A lot. I haven’t been around that many under 18 year old kids since I was in high school. And why? First, “We Are Young” has decent airplay, it’s #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (dropped from #1 after six weeks), #1 on the radio airplay chart and first song this year to reach over 3 million downloads (in sales, pirates). They were on Letterman. They’re playing “We Are Young” at the MTV Movie Awards in June. Yeah, they’re a popular band. That would explain the packed 9:30 club, so packed that this was actually the added show, another night of Fun. (I’ll refer to them as “Fun,” deal with it.) But the second reason that many young fans attended is slightly less obvious.
Miniature Tigers took the stage first. “I only just met you, DC, but I feel like I love you,” singer Charlie Brand intoned, later remarking “This is a sexy fuckin’ crowd. What the hell is going on in DC?” The audience was into it. They were virile and easily flattered. They lapped it up. Almost as if reading my thoughts, Brand at one point remarked, “Someone is Facetime-ing this whole show. I suspect it’s a girl.” The bassist, bedecked in Buddy Holly spectacles, bowtie and suspenders, egged him on: “What’s Facetime? What’s an iPhone? Oh I’ve heard of the Android.” He was so brave.
Brand towered over his band, bedecked in a wool suit coat. Looking at him, it would be difficult to predict his vocal style. A funky falsetto is threaded through carefully arranged cosmic synths and hesitant drums. “Cleopatra” kicked off with 8-bit style melody, revealing a slow 80’s pop number that so defines the more successful songs on their newest album, “Mia Pharaoh.” Some songs, like “Sex on the Regular,” made use of the surf-rock-style guitar strokes, which explains the Weezer comparisons. It’s kind of Weezer, surf rock, 80’s pop, Phoenix and Shins rolled into one. The track is worth checking out, is what I’m saying. I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm with their other tracks; the falsetto fell flatter, and was almost too stylistically similar to other bands for me to enjoy it. Miniature Tigers had a contagious enthusiasm for their sparkling, goofy, slow jams. And to Brand’s credit, he’s written great lyrics: “having somebody good for a change” (Cannibal Queen) “should I tell her that I love her though I’m not supposed to” (Easy as All That). The harmonies were solid, especially in “Boomerang,” where round-robin style harmony layered up Beatles-like. In an exceptionally cool move, Brand came off the stage and waded through the crowd to sing us “Cleopatra,” sweating in his blazer and all.
After Miniature Tigers left the stage, three black banners were turned over, revealing the tall white letters F, U, N. House lights went down and little eruptions of cheers began in the crowd, small fires lighting before the band took the stage, their first show fresh from the Sweetlife Festival last week. They’re a bigger band, six onstage overall. They kicked off with “One Foot,” a tirelessly energetic song highlighting the struggle to press on, although it does acknowledge morbidity: “I put one foot in front of the other one / I don’t need a new love or a new life / just a better place to die.” The rest of the band was impressively motivated by their songs, almost all members sang along like they were singing along to a song on the radio. It wasn’t just for show; they all had microphones to back up frontman (and young Marc Wahlberg lookalike) Nate Ruess.
So the second reason Fun’s audience is a little young? I’m not in high school any more. I was once, but I’m not now. I’m not cool. I know that. So I’ll register this theory as a guess: All Fun’s songs, for the most part, are uptempo and cheerful in sound, most songs are built on a foundation of Billy Joel-sian narrative melody and prolific protest-ish lyrics that sound like an optimistic My Chemical Romance song. With lines like, “me I’m gonna live forever … I feel alive” (Barlights), “I’m lucky my father’s still alive he’s been fighting all his life” (One Foot), “Tonight we are young / so let’s set the world on fire / we can burn brighter than the sun” (We Are Young), ” it’s no wonder they carry the audience they do. Along with the military-style, heavy beat drumming that infects so many of their songs, these confident carpe-diem lyrics lay a perfect trap for a fiery young crowd. Much of the audience cheered, went absolutely wild, for these twenty-something old men (and woman). I imagine they looked up to them. I remember looking up to bands in their twenties and thirties, thinking, “I bet they have it together.”
Something refreshing about Fun was that they were sincerely rocking out, without irony. Whether they took themselves very seriously, I can’t say. But they really played their songs, man. They actually responded to the high energy of the audience. Between songs, twice, Nate Ruess looked around, smiling his brains out and nodding at the crowd’s enthusiasm. Breaking into “Carry On,” they again filled the club with a fusion of bright optimism (“We are shining stars/ we are invincible”), heartbreaking and frustrating musings (“I’d like to think I can cheat it all / to make up for the times I’ve been cheated on”) and melodic piano undercarriage. Fun kept an impressive energy level, jumping around in the case of Ruess, or in the case of the rest of the band, bobbing their heads and dancing with their instruments. They sailed through other tracks off “Aim and Ignite” (2009) and “Some Nights” (2012), sounding very polished in a straight-off-the-recording type of way. They were practiced, and certainly flew at the audience with a lot of heart, but there was very little variation in the sound.
In trying to think of an artist to compare Fun to, I came up with many (Queen, Billy Joel, My Chemical Romance, Broadway composers) and I later read they were influenced somewhat by Paul Simon. The obvious dawned on me during their last song, and their encore performance. After playing a pitch-perfect version of “We Are Young,” musicians alight with enthusiasm, they closed with a spot-on cover of Rolling Stone’s 1969 classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I was amazed. They didn’t close with “We Are Young.” Then, after a few tense minutes of waiting in the dark (Is there anyone who does not do an encore these days?), they came onstage and Nate challenged his lead guitarist, Jack Antonoff, saying, “The only hint I can give you is that I’m Rob Thomas and you’re Carlos Santana.” Jack immediately broke into a riff of the “Smooth” melody. Pianist Andrew Doest accompanied on flugelhorn, but after a minute or two, Nate admitted “Yeah no one knows the rest of that,” but encouraged his band since he “wanted to do the chorus.” The crowd sang along as he embodied the deep, crooning Matchbox 20 singer. They were completely out of time, and it was hilarious. They had so much fun just breaking into a few bars of “Smooth,” an embarrassing classic of the late 90’s. And then, it made so much sense to me. Fun is an evolution of all the popular music that’s come behind them. They’re not backward looking, but they recognize what has come before and they pick up on many things that have passed behind their time. Many of their songs sounded similar, which is my major complaint of Fun, but I hope they continue evolving.
Then, Fun closed with “Some Nights,” a more obvious choice for last song. The audience sang along to that too, like every song played that night. Fun is the music of this upcoming generation, so take a listen before you’re behind the times.
If you want to pretend you were at this concert, here’s NPR’s All Songs Considered recording of the show.