Fitz and the Tantrums blow up the soul party

With a rebel yell
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  January 18, 2011

THROWING FITZ: Michael Fitzpatrick (in the white suit) heard horns in his head, a driving sound, no guitars, and — most significantly — powerful female vocals.

On a recent performance on Daryl's House, a monthly webcast starring Daryl Hall and his featured musical friends, new Los Angeles soul combo Fitz and the Tantrums got to kick it old school with the '80s master of rock and soul. It's too early to call that a passing of the baton, but Fitz and the Tantrums might just be a few moustaches away from FM-radio greatness. The webcast boasts a grizzled-but-gossamer Hall trading vocals Sam & Dave style with Fitz leader Michael Fitzpatrick on the Tantrums' "Pickin' Up the Pieces." Keep watching and you'll fall for Tantrums vocalist Noelle Scaggs returning the favor on Hall & Oates's own "Sara Smile."

As Scaggs proves, short-cropped looks and Dionne Warwick intonations will get you far. And with his blond-streaked surfer cut and tailored suit, Fitzpatrick has the best blue-eyed-tenor since the New Radicals' Gregg Alexander told us in 1998 that we've got the music in us. Not all of us actually do — but Fitzpatrick and Scaggs certainly have it. "Soul music has a truth to it that I just don't get from a lot of other kind of music," says Fitzpatrick by phone from sunny SoCal. "It just hits me in the gut."

It was only five years ago that the LA-bred songwriter was living out a two-month holiday in chilly Allston — right down the street from the Brighton Music Hall where he and his Tantrums will make their Boston debut tonight. Fitzpatrick was working on a movie that never came to fruition. Immersed in the arts scene since high school and working as a studio engineer in LA for most of his adult life (Ladytron's 2002 Light and Magic was one of his projects), he seems to have timed the chance to do his own thing perfectly. Just as hipper audiences have come to admit in recent years that adult-contemporary acts like Hall & Oates and Phil Collins also produced great music in the '80s, Fitz and the Tantrums have captured enough of the waning '90s mod revival and the still-hip Dap Kings' soul vérité to make mainstream soul music that people want to hear now. Ten years ago, their 2010 debut, Pickin' Up the Pieces, would have been called "wedding-band music."

When you think about it, the idea that entire genres of music go in and out of style is innately silly. Sometimes it just takes fresh inspiration to keep the music going around. One night, Fitzpatrick got his hands on a $50 Conn organ from the 1960s that took up about a quarter of his living room. "It was so vibey and had so much personality. I literally sat down and wrote 'Breakin' the Chains of Love' in five minutes."

With his engineer's ear, he heard horns in his head, a driving sound, and no guitars. Most of all, he knew he needed powerful female vocals. In putting a band together almost overnight, he was able to cash in on years of musical connections and good will — particularly in picking up Scaggs, a session vocalist and the lead singer of the soul outfit Rebirth. "There's a natural dimension to what we do," he explains. "We play off our masculine/feminine dynamic. Sometimes you don't know if we're going to fist-fight or if we're going to make out."

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