Fitz and The Tantrums have soul to spare. Over the past six years, the Los Angeles-based group has traversed across North America with occasional detours to Europe and Australia, gaining fans through their irresistibly energetic live shows. Led by two complementary singers, Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs, the remainder of the band is comprised of a quartet whose instrumental proficiencies bring their pop/funk/R&B song catalog to life. Darlings of the US festival circuit, I’ve seen them in venues of varying sizes around LA and they chalked another one off the list last week with a satisfying, albeit sound-flawed set at the restored United Artists Theater, now named The Theatre at Ace Hotel.
The opening of The Theatre at Ace Hotel is part of an ongoing revitalization within downtown Los Angeles. Since the late 1990s, the area has developed a new identity with the opening of Staples Center, Nokia Plaza at L.A. Live and, more recently, the Fig at 7th shopping complex, among other luxury hotels, restaurants and apartments. This transformation has extended to the old movie palaces on and around Broadway as the long shuttered United Artists Theater is the latest historic building to receive a full overhaul and remodeling in advance of a grand re-opening in February for a pair of Spiritualized shows during Valentine’s Day weekend. Fitz and The Tantrums were tapped by Live from the Artists Den for a taping during the soft open in what would be the first rock concert at the theatre in decades. This long hiatus in hosting amplified musical performances inside the room became immediately apparent at the outset, though band and engineers would persevere through the host of sound difficulties.
Live from the Artists Den, now in its seventh season airing on PBS, broadcasts acclaimed musicians from public and private concerts recorded nationwide. I had attended one other Artists Den taping previously, Soundgarden at The Wiltern in February 2013, which was a overwhelmingly rocking night documented by an unobtrusive camera crew and subsequently aired the following summer. After receiving notification granting access to the free performance, I was excited for the show to hear music from Fitz and The Tantrums’ well-received new album More Than Just a Dream, their first release Pickin’ Up the Pieces, perhaps a cover song or two and to get a sneak peek inside the Spanish gothic architecture of The Theatre at Ace Hotel. Following an introduction by an Artists Den producer promoting the series and profusely thanking the hospitality of the Ace Hotel, my high hopes were instantly tempered by a dearth of crowd energy as the band began their set.
Perhaps it was the setting in an unfamiliar venue on a Wednesday night or the presence of quite a few cameras but the audience was entirely devoid of any movement, sitting on their hands for a band that prides themselves on getting their fans up and dancing. Aside from myself, there was only one other couple on the floor level standing and grooving, absorbing the show as best we could before Noelle bluntly told everyone else to get on their feet a few minutes in. It didn’t help that the band sounded by and large horrible, though not through the fault of their playing. Bass was alternately non-existent or booming and overly reverberant, the drums lacked all punch and Noelle’s microphone was very low in the mix. Although Fitz’s vocals were clear and multi-instrumentalist James King was fully audible on saxophone, this was not the collective band sound we expected. Admittedly, the room didn’t seem to have a full PA installed, however, while I have confidence post-production wizards will be able to work their magic for the TV audience to make this sound passable when the episode airs, it was a substantial disappointment to listen to in person. Still, the group soldiered on, delivering their fun interpretation of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” a couple of songs in. A few minute break to “reset the cameras” midway through did improve the sound overall, but by then the damage had pretty much been done. Fortunately the band saved some of their best tunes for the end and a more organic sense of unity between musicians and audience developed by the time they dropped the new single “Out of My League” and final encore “Moneygrabber”.
I walked out with a smile on my face, partially because I was no longer being subjected to what might have been the worst live mix I’d ever experienced. On the plus side, it is worth reiterating this show was complimentary and the band didn’t shortchange the attendees, playing a full 90 minutes of music. I remain optimistic the venue will learn from a night like this and subsequently work to improve the acoustics for future events. Fitz and The Tantrums deserved better from most everyone involved in this production but I do look forward to seeing them again in another circumstance and how this episode is eventually assembled for broadcast on public television.