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. Aided by an adoring audience, the Grammy-winning group made their statement, and proved themselves masters of their corner of pop.
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. If there was an off-beat to be explored in the context of their songs, Keiter found it.
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 Supertamp 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. No matter — fun. never got thrown off, and they fed off the audience's love. They 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. Ruess sang it straight, but The Spin relished the way this ultra-modern band recast one of rock's canonical compositions.
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.