Naming your band that way -- as if to assert, "We are the ultimate definition of fun, end of discussion" -- is, aside from the lowercase pretension, a bit bold. It's also dicey. It means you've got to go on stage every night and live up to it, show it, prove it.
fun., the pop trio riding high on a heavy hit single, "We Are Young," delivered on the promise of that name in a short, sweet set Saturday night at Chicago's Vic Theatre.
"We Are Young," featuring acclaimed singer Janelle Monae, is currently the hottest song in the country -- five straight weeks at No. 1 (the first rock/alternative song in that slot since Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" in 2008), the top-selling digital single (nearly 3 million sold) and a download record-breaker (first track ever to score 300,000 downloads for six weeks in a row, beating the five-week record set by "Love the Way You Lie" from Eminem and Rihanna). The song's meteoric rise was fired not by traditional radio promotion but by exposure on "Glee" and subsequent use in a Super Bowl commercial.
But this was not a one-hit wonder show with a talkative, disinterested crowd shifting on its feet, killing time till the hit.
From the first martial rhythms of opening song "One Foot," the sold-out crowd (capacity appx. 1,400) was singing along before singer Nate Ruess began hopping about the stage and waving his lanky arms in an attempt to encourage them. Well-versed beyond the sizzling single, this audience knew the words to every song from the band's two albums thus far, "Aim and Ignite" from 2009 and the new "Some Nights." (The latter was released by the Fueled by Ramen label, which helped break The Academy Is... and Fall Out Boy beyond Chicago). fun. shows signs of simmering rather than merely flashing in the pan.
Doubled in size, with Ruess, guitarist-keyboardist Andrew Dost and drummer-guitarist Jack Antonoff augmented on stage by Emily Moore (saxophone/guitar/keyboard), Nate Harold (bass) and Will Noon (drums), fun. still managed to keep their springy, rhythmic pop sound light and bright Saturday night through 14 songs in under an hour and a half. After the adrenaline rush of "Barlights," the band backed off into the tender piano ballad "Carry On," worthy of the Ben Folds Five reunion. Sometimes they try too hard to be anthemic, going overboard with the whoa-ooh-oh chant of "Some Nights" and the sitcom-theme sincerity of "All the Pretty Girls," but the vast majority of the performances were rousing, cheery and, inevitably, fun.
Ruess, 30, a Robby Benson lookalike, leads the sound with a versatile voice, easily rattling off narrative lyrics or feisty lines and -- for someone who somehow has earned more than one comparison to Tracy Chapman -- occasionally punching strings of high notes worthy of Jon Anderson (Yes). He mostly employs that to propel words of youthful existential awakening and uplifting discovery -- "If you could see me / whoever I am" ("Walking the Dog"), "Live until we die ... never take a day for granted" ("The Gambler"), "I feel alive!" ("Barlights") -- as well as some ruminations that now seem ironic given the band's massive success -- "I'm over 25 / and I can't make a name for myself" ("One Foot"). Two songs mention Saturday night, which earned whoops and cheers on Saturday night.
Based in New York but a thousand times livelier than most of indie-pop's ruling Brooklyngentsia, the trio celebrated their Midwestern roots during some rare stage banter by acknowledging family members for all three core members in attendance. Ruess mentioned his relationship to Broadway performer John Ruess, who lives in Chicago, which made a fitting introduction to "The Gambler," a narrative ballad worthy of a musical, followed by "Be Calm," a skipping, unadorned melody wrenched from a children's theater -- and eerily like the hyperkinetic hamminess that Oingo Boingo boasted before Danny Elfman was vaulted into his theatrical and film-scoring ambitions.
All three fun.-sters are veterans of previous bands (Ruess from the Format, Dost from Anathallo, Antonoff of Steel Train), and they spoke of previous gigs at the Vic and Schubas as if they'd been slogging through the circuit for decades. Dost, late in the show, half-joked: "Let's be honest, we're getting too old for this sh--." (You want old? Say "We Are Young," and my first impulse is to follow with, "heartache to heartache, we stand.") That experience gives them confidence on stage -- how to act, where to stand, where not to, what moves and signals best juice the crowd -- and contribute to a fiery show like Saturday's. It's been a long, long time since I've seen a concert that failed to hemorrhage much audience during the first and even second encores like this one did. If the crowd sticks around, that's staying power. Period.
fun.'s Saturday night set list:
"Walking the Dog"
"Why Am I The One?"
"All The Pretty Girls"
"At Least I'm Not as Sad as I Used to Be"
"We Are Young"
"Take Your Time (Coming Home)"