The soul music mojo is in the details: short riffs that can dazzle only when assembled with precision, commitment and, well, soul. That craftsmanship, and melody, sets Fitz and the Tantrums — playing Tuesday at Upstate Concert Hall — far apart from most current soul-inspired pop groups.
“For us, it’s about strong melodies,” Michael “Fitz” Fitzpatrick told Esquire. “Melody gives people a way in.”
It’s the same with soul music makers: They must be detail-oriented, so that everything fitz — pardon me, fits — but also packs melody and meaning.
“Today’s songwriters have become lazy or too dependent on small catchy hooks that don’t have any real lyrical content whatsoever,” Tantrums drummer John Wicks told me, contrasting that approach with vintage styles.
“Motown is a huge influence,” said Wicks. “I think Fitz really found his voice in that style and I was recommended to him because I’m an avid collector and student of those records, drum sounds and songwriting.”
Fitz’s voice is a blue-eyed-soul croon, a la Daryl Hall; but his moves in videos suggest he spent his video-game years skateboarding.
Wicks said: “I like a candylike pop song as much or more than the next guy, but even those songs are an art form.”
Wicks learned of the art in pop and soul when the Navy stationed his father in New Orleans, where his mother showed him the sounds. “My mother took me anywhere there was music happening: jazz funerals, gospel churches, street performances, Mardi Gras — you name it,” said Wicks.
School band instructor Allan Villiers and drummers Dave Coleman Sr. (Billie Holiday’s band), Joe Hunt (Stan Getz and Bill Evans) and Allan Dawson taught him technique, but his mother instilled his work ethic.
“I almost turned down my first gig, but my mom said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are? Any chance you get to perform in front of people, you take it!’ That chance was at a Bainbridge Island, Washington, seafood restaurant. I made 20 bucks and dinner, playing in a jazz trio. I was 8 years old.”
After gigs in such bands as Bebop & Destruction and Being John McLaughlin (a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band) and various cities including Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Wicks wound up in Silverlake, the L.A. neighborhood so distinctively hip that he claimed, “Williamsburg is the Silverlake of New York.”
In L.A., Wicks played sessions with Cee Lo Green, Bruno Mars and others, making a decent living. “I had no plans of being in a touring band, but before I knew it, this thing had blown up and I was on the road more than I was at home.”
Forming in a hurry
Fitz and the Tantrums formed fast and rose fast. “We all met at the first rehearsal; we had just that one rehearsal then played our first show as Fitz and the Tantrums,” Wicks said. Only bassist Joseph Karnes joined after that first rehearsal where the band formed: singers Fitz and Noelle Scaggs, saxophonist James King, keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and Wicks. Right: no guitar.
In 2008, they played their first show, at Hotel Café — “a singer-songwriter haunt in L.A.,” Wicks called it. At that time, everyone in the band, all the Tantrums, were “seasoned road dogs,” Wicks said. “Fitz was the only member of the band who had never done any touring — he learned fast, though” — as the band hit the road with Flogging Molly.
Wicks said: “It’s been a fast ascent since then.” Touring hard and releasing “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” in 2010 built big buzz. The album rode Billboard’s Heatseekers chart for 73 weeks, ultimately taking the top spot. They won raves in Rolling Stone, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Esquire; played on Leno, Letterman, Fallon, Kimmel, Conan, Carson Daly, even Rachael Ray; and opened for Bruno Mars.
Wicks said playing on TV has been “amazing exposure” and “extremely validating for me.” He explained: “I can tell everyone, ‘Hey! Check me out on Letterman tonight.’ That feels really good. What people may not realize is that you load in your gear for Letterman at 3:30 a.m. and wait around many hours only to play three minutes of music.”
Touring brings its own stress. “It’s super hard, yet super simple being out there,” he said. “All I have to do is play drums for crowds of people every night — but when you have loved ones at home, it’s super tough. Yet when you don’t have anyone at home, I think that’s even tougher.”
This fall, they’ve played on Leno and Conan, between shows with Bruno Mars. Now, their “Bright Futures” tour brings Fitz and the Tantrums to the Upstate Concert Hall (1208 Route 146, Clifton Park, 371-0012, www.upstateconcerthall.com) on Tuesday, just as their new “More Than Just a Dream” album follows “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” up the charts.
“In the new record, I think you’ll hear more of the influences we all grew up with in our collective consciousness,” said Wicks, “as opposed to the ones we dug up as students of music.”
Wicks contrasted the Bruno Mars and “Bright Futures” tours this way: “With Bruno, they were all ‘away games’ in that the crowd were all there to hear him and 90 percent of them had never even heard of us. The ‘Bright Futures’ tour is all ‘home games,’ super fun and a lot less scary.”
Doors open at 6:30 p.m., show time is 7:30 p.m. Beat Club opens, then Capital Cities plays, then Fitz and the Tantrums. Admission is $23.50 advance, $25 on Tuesday.
Players play on
These instrumentalists rule this week.
Tonight Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré leads his quartet into the Sanctuary for Independent Media (3361 Sixth Ave., Troy, 272-2390, www.mediasanctuary.org). Since last summer’s Music Haven show was rained out, Touré — the “Hendrix of the Sahara” — released “Mon Pays,” desert blues about his violence-torn country. Show time is 7 p.m. Admission is $20.
On Saturday, British finger-style guitarist Adrian Legg returns for his first local show in too long, playing the Van Dyck (237 Union St., Schenectady, 348-7999, www.vandycklounge.com) at 7:30 p.m. Amazing skill? Check. Witty stories? Double-check. Admission is $18 advance, $22 on Saturday.
Also, Saturday, saxophonist Lew Tabackin guests with pianist Aaron Diehl’s trio at 8 p.m. at the Doctorow Center for the Arts (7971 Main St., Hunter, www.catskilljazzfactory.com). The repertoire: John Coltrane, Lester Young and Catskills resident Sonny Rollins. Advance admission is $23, seniors $18, students $7; at the door $27, seniors $21, students $7.
On Sunday, mandolinist Chris Thile plays the Massry Center at The College of Saint Rose (1002 Madison Ave., Albany, 337-4871, www.massrycenter.org), probably playing his new Bach repertoire. Admission is $30.
Rockers rock on
One of our favorite bands rocks here again on Saturday: the nine-piece, unprecedented, silly but strong Chandler Travis Philharmonic — one of Travis’ 7,249 bands — plays Valentine’s (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany, 432-6572, www.valentinesalbany.com) with the Parlor and Sgt. Dunbar & the Hobo Banned opening at 8 p.m. Admission is $12 advance, $15 at the door.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.