Photo slideshow (above) by Rich Orris.
If you caught L.A.-based retro-soul group Fitz & the Tantrums when they opened for Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings at The Orange Peel last May, you had some idea of what the band could bring. Of course, that was opening for Sharon Jones (which takes some audacity), and it was a 30-minute (give or take) set. And it was before Fitz & the Tantrums’ single “MoneyGrabber” was on near-constant radio circulation. Not to mention landing the band spots on Conan and Leno.
This time around — last night, to be exact — Fitz & the Tantrums claimed their rightful place as headliners on the Orange Peel stage. (April Smith and the Great Picture Show opened.) Dressed in a close-fitting blue suit, front man Michael Fitzpatrick took the stage, opening with “Don’t Gotta Work It Out” from the band’s most recent release, Pickin’ Up the Pieces. “I don’t know but I’ve been told, the world outside is oh so cold,” the song chants. Live, it launched at a full wallop and even though it seemed like the band would be hard-pressed to raise the energy from that point, they did.
The Jolt Cola punch of Fitz & the Tantrums is a group effort, but vocalist Noelle Scaggs — a tiny powerhouse — is certainly a major part of the equation. She belts. She dances. She beats a tambourine as if she’s possessed. She whips the crowd into a frenzy. She comes at each song with a gospel choir sensibility, though there’s no doubt that these are secular songs.
Early in the evening, Fitzpatrick announced that since playing Asheville last year, he “always says in interviews” that this is favorite place he’s ever been on tour. (And during the three-song encore, he encouraged — with utter sincerity — the entire audience to meet the band at the merch booth after the show, and then join him for a drink at Mo Daddy’s later on.)
The band performed a couple new songs — “Wake Up” and “6 a.m.” — both soulful and MoTown-reminiscent. While the songs are based on keyboard melodies (Jeremy Ruzumna), it’s the baritone saxophone of James King that really lends the perfect retro pitch. Fitzpatrick, who would seem at home in musical theater, leads his band with a series of dance moves that are much band conductor as soul man. He himself is equal parts James Brown and David Byrne.
On the title track from Pickin’, Fitzpatrick and Scaggs sang to each other; by “Dear Mr. President” (which warrants comparison to The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”) they had the audience participating on the “Hey! Woo!” parts. Before launching into “L.O.V.,” Fitzpatrick told the audience, “You need to get your dance on.” While Fitzpatrick and Scaggs didn’t have synchronized dance moves on stage, they were undeniably in synch. Each song was impeccably rehearsed and the two singers locked into eachother’s groove. Though it’s hard to imagine how they maintained the frantic pace of the evening — and they never once showed any signs of flagging — it was definitely the fast songs where Fitz & the Tantrums are most at home. A couple slow dances were fun and well-received, but just didn’t have the punch of the upbeat numbers. Wisely, the band kepts the slow-tempo stuff to a minimum.
The group’s encore included a stellar r&b version of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” (you can download it from the Fitz & the Tantrums’ website). They finished out the night with their single, “MoneyGrabber.” It was a well-attended show for a Monday night, but chances are, next time Fitz & the Tantrums come through Asheville, they’ll easily sell out the Orange Peel. Suggestion: Buy your tickets early.