Florida isn’t a southern state and Pensacola certainly isn’t a Florida-styled city. The so-called “City of Five Flags” lacks the glitter and buzz of other Floridian mainstays such as Orlando, Tampa or Miami, though its beaches are arguably more attractive. No, there’s something a little bit different about the Western Gate to the Sunshine State. So don’t be confused, we are still talking about south of the south here. It’s a region jokingly referred to as lower-Alabama, a place unlike many of its northern neighbors in that it lacks the Civil War-era vitriol about rising again but still retains a definite southern charm: shotgun shacks and antebellum mansions, fire-ants, boiled peanuts and a warmth of character implicit in the local population.
Travel 100 miles or so in any direction from the generous, well kept avenues of downtown Pensacola and you might as well be in a different country. North places you in Montgomery, the darkened heart of Jim Crow-era south. West takes you to the city at the end of the world, New Orleans, whose nihilism and recurring tragedies have long been the hedonistic cause for celebration. East and Florida proper begins, the swamp with its myriad dangers: pythons, gators and retirees. Pensacola is the seemingly normal fixed center in a spiraling vortex of eccentricity.
Perhaps this makes it the most appropriate location for a group like Fitz and the Tantrums, whose cannon remains just as logical and well delineated as Pensacola’s city streets while the pop geography surrounding them tessellates under the self-aggrandizing weight of its own excesses. 2013 might be remembered as the year of the Great Hip Hop Hope. Where both Yeezus and Magna Carta have failed, the triumvirate will soon be completed by Eminem. His bizarre and overly inflated recent single, “Berzerk”, doesn’t show much promise for reinvigorating a stalled genre.
Neither does the more traditional pop market offer much of interest. While major labels struggle to issue this week’s Madonna, or else recycle child stars as legitimate artists, their efforts have fallen mostly flat. Vocalists are the streetwalkers of the music industry. Technically proficient yet bereft of soul, pop singers are more like interpretations of the real thing, illicitly pleasing for a moment’s joy but quickly disposed of and easily forgotten.
Cream rises to the top in any industry and this may be what makes Fitz and the Tantrums so sweet. Fitz and the Tantrums may not be on the forefront of your lips, but chances are very good their brand of crisp, emotive neo soul-pop has worked its way through your ears at some point in the last few years to create an ‘80s synth dance party atmosphere in your brain. You might not immediately recognize titles like “MoneyGrabber” or “Don’t Gotta Work it Out” from their first release ,Pickin’ Up the Pieces, but relentless airwave support and constant touring means you’re likely tacitly familiar with the music. This year’s More Than Just a Dream has established Fitz and Company as more than just a flash in the pan. The album’s first single, “Out of My League,” has worked its way up both the Billboard Alternative and Rock charts. This is no small accomplishment for a band whose music doesn’t include a single guitar.
Though the genre they’re filed under and indeed the music they make falls securely within the pop realm, there’s nothing expressly typical about Fitz and the Tantrums’ music. Their sound and substance are perhaps bigger than the pop format currently or else normally allows.
Critics are fond of describing the band as neo-soul, and it does seem as if they channel something of Motown’s spirit in approach to songwriting. While most modern pop groups flout hyper-sexual lyrics and hard luck love life narratives from the first person P.O.V., Fitz et al are a bit more creative, playing with themes that tie interpersonal relationships into universal subjects, utilizing potent harmonies and, at least live, the interaction between the male and female vocal leads. The interracial duo of Michael Fizpatrick and Noelle Scaggs poses a striking visual contrast and challenges the mainstream agenda of what exactly makes a front man. Much like Shovels and Rope in the country/folk arena, there exists an equality between the sexes that is frankly at odds with the gender wars of a seduction obsessed industry.
Whether it be through atypical make-up or plain old hip shaking good tunes, Fitz and the Tantrums cast a wide net. Nowhere was this more apparent than outside Vinyl Music Hall in Pensacola on Sunday, August 25. One should never wait longer in the ‘will call’ line than the combined running time of the showcased group’s discography (which in this case is about an hour and a half) but we like to consider ourselves a patient, open minded publication and the attraction for the show was just too alluring.
Entrance into the venue Vinyl was a bit disappointing. Most music halls call themselves such out of modesty but in this case the name fits the bill. If it weren’t for the cleanliness of the venue combined with an absolutely first rate audio experience, the modest size and wall length bar would suggest it more of a punker’s club than Pensacola’s preferred uptown hangout.
Vinyl was sold out, absolutely packed to capacity as opener Kopecky Family Band took stage. Though not kin in the literal sense, the group nonetheless shared a familial sense of intimacy with the crowd, playing more traditional guitar oriented indie rock. Most in the audience were familiar with the band’s insatiably catchy single, “Heartbeat”, as well as other select tracks from their debut, Kids Raising Kids. Performance fatigue was apparent though easy to forgive when vocalist, keyboardist, and namesake Kelsey Kopecky revealed that night as the final show in an exhaustive months long tour.
If Fitz and the Tantrums’ sound is bigger than the pop format will allow, then their presence at Vinyl was certainly bigger than the stage would allow. Filing onto the small stage, backlit by the neon pink heart that adorns their latest album and flanked by three additional musicians, the warmly receptive crowd surged. To catcalls from the excited capacity crowd, Fitz and Co. lost no time launching into their repertoire. They began the set with first album favorites that sounded so close to the recorded material it was hard not to call Milli Vanilli.
After working the crowd to near hysteria they segued into newer choices that the audience sang along with just as intently as their better known tracks. Fitzpatrick and Scaggs worked the tiny stage with everything they had, cutting the mic at opportune moments to allow the audience to take lead vocal duty over choruses. It gets hard to condemn other the hyper-sexuality of other pop stars when watching Ms. Scaggs’ stage antics. Her performance absolutely dripped of sensuality. The interplay between the two was spot on as ever, and the cramped conditions might have even worked in their favor.
In short, the show was so well delivered by Fitz and the Tantrums—the stage lighting, sound quality, showmanship, everything—that it begs one to question what they were even doing at a club in the first place when the nearby Pensacola Bay Civic Center sat vacant. In the span of four years Fitz and the Tantrums have coalesced from concept to chart toppers. There’s no doubt this odd, genre defying group will be playing the equally odd, geography defying Pensacola arena their next stop through town.