A perfect band! That’s how one neighbor in the pit at Velvet Jones put it near the end of Fitz and the Tantrums’ weekend-capping set for New Noise Santa Barbara. And it was, at least in recent memory, one of the most exciting, go-for-broke performances we’re seen in Santa Barbara this year.
The Los Angeles-based band re-imagine soul — both Motown and the blue-eyed ’80s revival version — on their own terms, and make sure to bring everybody along for the ride.
Scouring YouTube after the show, trying to find a live video that approached the manic energy of the band, we came up with less than satisfactory results. Safe to say that Santa Barbara got something more than the usual gig. Perhaps it was the narrow confines of the club and the tiny stage. Perhaps it was just something in the air. But it’s rare to see a band command the entirety of Velvet Jones, such as they did.
Simple reasons: showmanship and snappy, radio-friendly tunes, if by radio one means a station coming out of Detroit in 1966. Instead of nostalgia or historic reconstruction and/or deconstruction, the band take backbeat drums, funky bass, honking sax, distorted keyboards and the vocal talents of Michael Fitzpatrick and his trusty backup vocalist and female counterpoint, the stunning Noelle Scaggs, and start from where the genre left off. Apart from Ms. Scaggs, the band dressed in sharp suits, skinny ties and black and white tennies. Ms. Scaggs wore a smart and shiny dress that could have come out of The Supremes’ wardrobe.
In songs like the openinig “Don’t Gotta Work It Out,” “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” and “L.O.V.” the sound is Motown and Stax, yet this isn’t a game of spot-the-reference. The hooks are all theirs, and it all sounds brand new. Fitz’s voice shows hints of Daryl Hall, yet is more straight-forward and less likely to break out into soulful wails. His unruly front flap of hair brings to mind Bryan Ferry, Phil Oakey and Martin Fry. His frayed electric wiring of a body is like a mix of Jagger, Iggy Pop and David Byrne, while Ms. Scaggs provides a foil to Fitz’s lyrics, shakes a mean tambourine, insists we join in singing and hand-clapping, and moves like a sexy rubber band.
The majority of the set came from their current album “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” but they debuted a new song, “6 a.m.,” another winner out of the gate, then followed up with their album closer “Tighter,” a ballad that was about as slow as the band gets. It still featured enough energy to make it sizzle — slow doesn’t necessarily mean boring. For “Dear Mr. President,” Ms. Scaggs made the left side of the club sing “Hey!” and the other sing “Woo!” and everybody obliged. For an unexpected cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” — with bassline supplied by saxman John King — the entire crowd sang along. And for the closing number, their hit of sorts, “Money Grabber,” Fitz demanded we all get down, literally. He had the entire audience, all the way back to the bar, crouching on the floor, while the band hit the breakdown, then built us back up into a rousing freakout. It was hilarious, but also a reminder of how engaginig rock and soul can be, when so many recent bands almost seem embarrassed to be onstage. Miss their return visit to Santa Barbara at your peril.