When it comes to calculating pop music's impact, The Spin opts for the pragmatic approach: If a band becomes successful combining musical smarts and up-to-the-moment words that describe the lives of the fans who buy the band's records, their success becomes a kind of artistic statement. So The Spin was curious to see how the immensely successful and impeccably populist group fun. would fare in front of a packed house at the Ryman Saturday night. The contrast made for a frisson on a cold night: Here was the Mother Church of Country hosting a group of gloriously impure pop purists on a mission to combine boy-band vocals, rock music, Broadway melodies and lyrics about self-determination and the vagaries of fame and fortune.
The Spin enjoyed opening act All Get Out, a quartet from Charleston, S.C., that has gone through a incarnation or two during their career. Led by singer and songwriter Nathan Hussey, All Get Out displayed a nice line in tense, kinetic guitar-driven pop-rock — the slacker-shoegazer glaze was constantly pierced by Gordon Keiter's hyperactive, sprung-rhythm drumming. Although the group's falsetto hooks and self-examining lyrics were special, Keiter's drumming kept the songs pulled up tight. Combining a kind of prog-rock approach — powered by Keiter's out-of-the-pocket but spot-on drumming, the songs went from section to section, with terse guitar licks adding flavor to the proceedings — All Get Out sounded as if they had one foot in the rock past while bravely stepping into a post-rock future. Their songs folded in guitar noise along with Hussey's self-aware vocals, with atmospheric sections balancing out the frenetic parts.
Fun. came onstage to a massive wave of love from the crowd, and The Spin was impressed by the stamina and devotion of the fun.-loving fans, who stood for virtually the entire performance. In fact, the crowd was a huge part of the show: They knew every word of every song and sang along in a display of confidence that amounted to a tribute to the communal power of pop music. Still, it was vocalist Nate Ruess who defined the performance. The Spin has always thought Ruess sounds more than a little bit like Supertramp vocalist Roger Hodgson, or maybe like a soulful Don McLean. At any rate, Ruess' vocal style evokes the '70s for The Spin, although the band's stylistic stew of influences has been seasoned with post-punk, indie rock, hip-hop and several other post-'70s genres. He's a superb singer, and the night developed into a demonstration of his vocal savvy and stagecraft.
Starting with "Out on the Town," a song from last year's acclaimed and commercially successful full-length Some Nights, fun. let Ruess do his thing over booming bass lines and the occasional synth blast. As he did during several songs, keyboardist Andrew Dost doubled on flügelhorn. The band continued with "One Foot," another Some Nights track, with Ruess stalking the stage and holding his mic stand aloft. The Spin noted the backup band's excellent playing — drummer Will Noon kept everything moving along, and never got in the way of the songs' ingenious structures. Nate Harold contributed superb bass and vocals. Guitarist Jack Antonoff played off-kilter solos that contrasted with the group's squeaky-clean vocal harmonies, while multi-instrumentalist Emily Moore added color.
It was a syncretic event — if Ruess, Dost and Antonoff seem to favor the lightly ironic, self-mocking tone of romantic pop, the songs draw upon funk and reggae rhythms. Ruess' singing was almost totally devoid of rough edges or the kind of over-sold, over-souled neo-R&B approach that spoils so much of current pop singing for The Spin. Fun.'s message is one of optimism and outreach, even though some of their songs are couched in terms of difficult, life-changing events — if the band's great subject is self-determination, what does that say about the fun of fun.?
The crowd sang along, while their handclaps did prove that even super-hip Nashville audiences do not possess metronomic time. Fun. went through tunes from their Aim and Ignite and Some Nights collections, with "We Are Young" and "All Alright" among the standouts. They closed their set with a version of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' 1969 "You Can't Always Get What You Want," a tune about the limits of pop culture. Throughout the night, Ruess talked about the band's recent Grammy wins — they took home the awards for Song of the Year and Best New Artist. As he said, "Last week was a special thing for us." The fans agreed — hooting and hollering as they held their mobile devices aloft like the lighters and half-smoked joints of an earlier era of fun, they called the band back onstage for an encore that included "Some Nights" and "Stars." The show was a stirring example of pop music's power, and a reminder of the essential bond between artists and audiences.
Somewhere around a year ago, The Spin wasn't quite sure what to make of our first impression of East Nashville Underground. The photobooth, bar and stage were all crammed into an incredibly humid two-room basement which itself was crammed with a couple hundred music fans, the sweaty pits of whom provided a stench we haven't yet gotten out of the T-shirt we wore that night.
Transcending from ashy to classy, ENU's debut at new venue The East Room last fall still included booze and grub with the ticket price, but also a much better lineup, much more accommodating digs and a mysterious appearance from porn star Ron Jeremy. Still, it was unclear whether this scene was really gaining recognition outside of the East Side, and beyond the people who turned up.
Thanks to a little boost from a new sponsor — local radio big shots Lightning 100 — The Hedgehog himself would have been turned away at the door without an advance ticket. Both days of the event sold out before dark, sending many would-be patrons on a chilly trip across the street to FooBar. Even The Spin arrived just a little too late on Friday night to get our designated driver in with us.
We learned our lesson and showed up bright and early (at the ass-crack of dusk) on Saturday night in time to catch the cool and careful orchestral pop of Colorfeels. The glass was half full in terms of attendance, but with free beers flying across the bar and gratis chips and salsa for all to enjoy, The Spin was at a rare loss for complaints. Female-fronted power-pop outfit Frances and the Foundation — featuring ENU honcho Jared Corder on drums — followed. The early portion of Saturday's festivities concluded with synth-pop party machine Hanzelle, whose electro-math-rock beats and gratuitously squiggly Moog sounds made it tough for daytime ticket holders to leave.
After taking a break to grab some warm clothes and dinner, The Spin returned to nothing short of a full house. Tobacco junkies shivered furiously outside while everyone inside kept their forearms fixed upright so as not to spill their complimentary cocktails. Previously unheard by The Spin, COIN brought with them some synth-driven pop that was just creative enough for us to forgive their exceptionally less impressive band name. Tesla Rossa rocked a brand of radio rock that at this point could be accurately described as "classic" (i.e., turn-of-the-century style).
Closing out the evening — at least for us — were James Wallace and the Naked Light. Blending a little oldies rock with a mellow, grass-roots folk implosion, Wallace makes a kind of music that's melodious and quirky and easy to enjoy if you're easygoing. Proggy jamsters Moon Taxi kicked into their set as we exited — purely by coincidence, we swear. But now that ENU has mastered the art of making these events truly eventful, we may have to make it our business to get in the door in time to catch the whole shebang next time.
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