Fitz & the Tantrums: LIVE! | Electric at Every Level

Michael Fitzpatrick and his band electrify the stage with an energy that recordings just can’t capture.

Fitz and the Tantrums make hard-rocking, soul-shaking music without the standard electric guitar. They do this on purpose.

“It was absolutely a conscious decision and what I consider a bold move,” Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick said over the telephone from his Los Angeles home. “We are the only band on the Billboard Contemporary Chart without a guitar,” he proudly continued. “We sound big and full, so people don’t realize it at first, and then wham—it just hits them.” Part of the reason for the band’s large sound can be attributed to Fitz’s choice of musical instrument. He performs on an old, vintage church organ.

Fitz and the Tantrums will appear at the Blue Moose Tap in Iowa City February 8, 2011. The sextet’s sound draws heavily from the Motown and Stax music from the classic years of 1966-69. Fitz, the bandleader, is far too young to have heard this music while a kid.

“I grew up in a household where my dad was a classical music and opera freak. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock at home. The only concession allowed me was when my mom would turn on the radio and listen to oldies stations while driving the car pool to school,” Fitz said. “The amazing melodies and vocals of Motown and Soul from the ’60s planted the seed in me. As I grew up and got more interested in songwriting and production, I appreciated it even more.”

Fitz and the Tantrums have released an EP (Songs for a Breakup, Vol. 1) and a full-length disc (Pickin‘ Up the Pieces), opened a tour for the celebrated soul group Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, appeared on Carson Daly’s late night television show, and had their songs featured on episodes of popular programs including Criminal Minds and Desperate Housewives. Surprisingly, Fitz said the media most responsible for the group’s success was the band’s appearance on Live From Daryl’s House.

“Daryl Hall invites people over to his house for collaborations,“ Fitz explained. “He tapes it and puts it on the Internet. I found myself sitting across from him, and he started singing one of my songs. It was amazing, a dream come true, and then I started singing one of his songs.” Critics have compared Fitz’s voice with Hall’s, so the meeting seems natural. However, Fitz’s vocals in the band are matched by sultry female singer Noelle Scaggs instead of John Oates’ baritone vocals.

The other Tantrums include drummer John Wicks, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna, and horn section James King and Joseph Karnes. Fans laud the energy of the band’s live shows. While Fitz, a self-admitted studio geek, said that he loves the group’s recordings, he admitted that they haven’t yet been able to capture the magic of the band in performance.

“I think the live performance is where you separate the boys from the men. Studio trickery has its merits, but playing live is a whole other thing. Our live show has a much different energy and electricity than the record,” Fitz said. He boasted about the band’s talent and dedication.

“What was it that Malcolm Gladwell said in The Tipping Point? Well, everybody in the group has 10,000 hours of experience! And the sum of us together is greater than the individual parts. Something special happens live, as we all have the same encounter in the presence of the spontaneous moment,” Fitz said.

“As the front man, this can be intoxicating. Like when the drummer decides not to end the song where he usually does, but keeps on going. And the volume is up to 11. And the tempo gets faster. I just have to giggle and take it up a level. You know, someone can steal your music in this day of downloading, but they cannot steal what happens when you play live.” 

He noted that the band live engaged in much mutual repartee, especially he and Noelle. “Noelle and I do much more than just sing. We flirt, we badger. We let loose on the floor. When we perform, we leave it all out there until we are drained,” Fitz explained. The show follows the format of the old-time soul revues, but they are not retro nor do they follow a rigid plan.

“We hunger to create something of authentic quality, not a carbon copy. While the music of the past has been a major influence, we always want to contribute something new to the dialogue. We put a modern twist on it with the goal of balancing the old and the new.”

The group also does a cover of the Eurythmics’ monster hit “Sweet Dreams (are Made of This).” Fitz said, “I’ve always loved that song, and there was a challenge about it because it’s been covered so much. Even Marilyn Manson took a stab at it. We turn the song on its head and do a funky, solid treatment.” This involves a call and response situation with the audience.

In terms of the band’s material, Fitz writes songs with unhappy or serious lyrics purposely juxtaposed against upbeat melodies. He aims for “vibe and personality” and said he wanted audiences to be engaged on every level, to think and listen as well as dance to the groove.

Fitz wondered aloud what Iowa was going to be like. “This Winter Solstice tour we will embark on is exciting because we get to play a ton of new cities we’ve never been. People ask us on Twitter and Facebook, ‘When are you coming?‘ and now we can tell them.” Fitz said.

“Besides, I’m not scared of the cold of the Midwest in February,” the Southern California resident Fitz joked. He asked about potential road conditions and discussed the merits of a warm coat versus long underwear. He clearly comprehends what may be in store for him here.    

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