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Live review: Grooving with Fitz and the Tantrums at the El Rey

November 18, 2010 |  5:10 pm

Fitz and the Tantrums’ retro-soul rhythm made it hard for the packed crowd to keep still Wednesday night at the El Rey.

FITZ_TANTRUMS_LAT_6_
You had to wonder if the threat of public ridicule was necessary Wednesday night at the El Rey Theatre, where Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums assured the capacity crowd that he’d point out anyone he saw not dancing to his song “MoneyGrabber.” That tune came at the very end of this L.A.-based retro-soul outfit’s 80-minute concert; nearly an hour earlier, the audience had already demonstrated its allegiance by cheering a flute solo before knowing whether the solo was any good. Still, Fitzpatrick’s warning produced results: In a decent-sized room packed with typically reserved hipsters, not one appeared worthy of being shamed.

It’s been a speedy ride to such devotion for Fitz and the Tantrums, who played their first show less than two years ago and whose debut album, “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” came out in August. Some of the band’s success can be attributed to the pop climate: In New York, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have magnetized the soul-revival sound for a generation too young to have experienced the real deal; other acts, including Eli “Paperboy” Reed and L.A.’s Mayer Hawthorne, have increased the heat. And there’s no discounting the role “Mad Men” has played in galvanizing interest in the sort of group that turns up onstage wearing crisp two-tone suits — as Fitz and the Tantrums did Wednesday.

But these hard-working style mavens have also built their following the newly old-fashioned way — with an energetic live show and a handful of excellent tunes. Their repertoire contains some filler too, nourished on unexamined ideas about what made Motown’s greatest hits work. At the El Rey the ballads were especially lumpy, the desultory songwriting beyond rescue by Fitzpatrick’s gutsy singing, which at its best called to mind both Daryl Hall and Levi Stubbs. (The eight-piece band’s secondary vocalist Noelle Scaggs sang less distinctively, though her frank between-song banter helped chip away at the group’s creeping museum-piece sterility.)

Fitz and the Tantrums were more convincing in up-tempo numbers such as “L.O.V.” and “Rich Girls,” and not only because they gave the tart horn section and keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna an opportunity to punk things up a little. At once dejected and ornery, these also were where Fitzpatrick embodied a point of view more specific than the dippy romance from which so much throwback soul issues. “I don’t believe in the power of love when the world is crumbling down,” he claimed in “L.O.V.,” shortly after the band played an early cut called “We Don’t Need No Love Songs.” That wasn’t true, of course. But the touch of skepticism refreshed the music anyway.

-- Mikael Wood

Photo: Michael Fitzpatrick. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin /Los Angeles Times  

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