Live: Thievery Corp., Fitz & the Tantrums at the Greek Theatre
There are groove bands and there are song bands. Groove bands, such as Washington, D.C.,’s Thievery Corporation, improvise like jam bands, but with rhythm -- not instrumentation -- as their base. They lay down a beat and then let it flow over a period of time, seeing where the interplay of players leads but following scant narrative. When the groove ends -- usually, it fades out -- they pronounce it a song.
Song bands, such as Los Angeles’s own Fitz and the Tantrums, may have grooves, but they fit them into carefully constructed structures, like three-act plays, and favor melodic devices -- hooks, choruses, climactic bridges -- over riffs and solos.
Thievery Corp and Fitz and the Tantrums provided a yin-and-yang evening of funk music under an almost full moon at the Greek on Friday night. Thievery had the sold-out crowd swaying on its feet and cursing the 11 p.m. venue curfew. But people went home humming the irresistible radio breakthrough “MoneyGrabber” of openers the Tantrums.
Main Thieves Eric Hilton and Rob Garza have been creating dub-based club music for 15 years, mixing reggae, rap, ambient and trance into chill-out music for hipsters. They surround themselves with talented players from around the world. The 14-piece band Friday featured musicians from Jamaica, Argentina, St. Thomas and Iran, including a rotating cast of eight singers and MCs. Multilingual Lou Lou created a sultry trip-hop vibe; Boston rapper Mr. Lif provided a timely millennial edge with “Culture of Fear.”
The group respects its sources and illustrated it by inviting a special guest Friday: War co-founder Harold Brown, who joined on percussion for “Heart Is the Hunter” and donned a washboard vest for the grand finale.
Songs from Thievery's recent release, "Culture of Fear," alternated with older tunes such as “Lebanese Blonde” and “Assault on Babylon.” The band also lyrically tipped its hats to influences Funkadelic and the Wailers. But Thievery Corp is way looser, more hippie than those sovereign groove outfits. Funk patriarch James Brown famously drove his band like an Army platoon. Garza and Hilton are laid-back leaders; unfortunately, that slackness made me at times want to dub the group Passive Attack.
Fitz and the Tantrums took their cues from Mr. Brown, motoring like a well-oiled machine. Possibly the city’s best party band, the six members are pedigreed players (special shoutout to funky bassist Joseph Karnes) who cohere impeccably well, a la the Stax Records house band, or Elvis Costello’s Attractions. They have not one but two compelling front people: The Bryan Ferryish Fitz wears tailored suits and croons blue-eyed soul. Noelle Scaggs melds the crowd-whipping exhortations of a hip-hop hype woman with classic backing-singer doo wops. A dynamo in a slinky dress, she and Fitz just look like they’re having so much fun, they make you want to dance.
Mostly, Fitz and the Tantrums have some really good songs with catchy melodies and clear beginnings, middles and ends. Thievery Corporation lays down tasty grooves, but the Tantrums put on a show that, with an overt tip of the hat to the Isley Brothers, made you want to shout.
-- Evelyn McDonnell
Photo: Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza, left, and Eric Hilton. Credit: thieverycorporation.com