The Damn Fanatics at the Great American Music Hall, by Patric Carver
The Damn Fanatics (photo: Patric Carver)

I don’t know about you, but I did not enjoy going to my senior prom. A friend of mine had to remind me of the theme: “A Night on the Nile.” Camels and palm trees were involved somehow. I remember walking in and seeing a brown poster paper triangle that read, “Welcome Pharoes and Cleopatras!” The “P” in “Pharoes” had clearly started its life as a “F” with an itty bitty “h” squeezed in next to it after the correction. It beat the theme the year before, which was “The principal embezzled all our money and so we’re having this thing in a hospital auditorium — you’ll need to leave by 10.”

Proms suck for myriad reasons, but the reason I was most unprepared for was that it was mind-numbingly dull. Nothing happened. I paid a lot of money for a ticket to sit in an uncomfortable dress, listen to music I didn’t enjoy, and make small talk with people who didn’t really want to talk to me.

Last Thursday night at Great American Music Hall, I felt like I got to have a do-over prom. The members of the creative collective at PianoFight took over the stage for a fantastic party that swelled with enthusiasm. Even though everyone in the room looked old enough to worry about things like proper fiber consumption, the place was undulating with youthfulness.

It started off with The Damn Fanatics, a band brimming with a sort of delightful offshoot of Peter Pan syndrome. Their energy seems to scream, “We all have to grow, but we don’t have to just grow up.” Frontman Andy Strong is positively theatrical on stage, moving about like a possessed ballerina.

I spoke to Strong, who confirmed for me that he is an absolute madman. I’ve talked to a fair amount of musicians, and there’s usually this element of “Did I say the ‘right’ thing?” hanging in the air, regardless of how confident the person is on stage. Not with Strong. What you see is what you get. That passion and bravado are the real deal. The son of performers himself, Strong says he is “hooked on performance.”

It’s a passion he deeply wants to share, too. “I think if I am going to accomplish one thing, just one thing, I want it to be that we bring more love and we invite more people to love.” Love and life are reoccuring themes for the Fanatics, as is gratitude. Strong hails from Memphis, and his music follows the tradition of great Southern country neoclassicists in that songs about life’s more banal aspects are tempered with existential inquiries about the universe.

As smart as their music is, though, the Fanatics' best quality is their sound. It’s accessible, swampy rock that teeters between the psychedelic and the more earthly country and power-pop genres. They have a deep-fried guitar that is soothed by punchy keys that remind me of the Doors. It’s deeply enjoyable.

The highlight of their set was when they invited vocalist Alison Quin on stage to sing their last couple of songs. “Sent by the Man” was just an incredible number. Quin’s Mavis Staples-like vocals pushed the song to its anthemic limits and complemented the Fanatics perfectly. I felt like I’d just partied with the hippie kids who were too cool to join in on school functions in the parking lot. It was exhilarating.

However, it was short-lived. My anxiety heightened when I saw the stage start to take shape with a set up for a big band. “Hey,” I said to a passerby, “do you know anything about the bands playing tonight?”

“Uh, one of them is a jazz band.”

Oh, no.

“But, it’s not like jazz-jazz. It’s fun jazz.”

Fun jazz?!? Let me out of here.

It’s not that I don’t like jazz outright. I just don’t like bad jazz, and there is oh-so-much bad jazz floating around. The band members tweaking their instruments were all dressed in formal attire...complete with boutonnières. In my experience, the cuter the outfits, the worse the jazz.

Apparently, I hadn’t learned anything from my days spent watching the Ringwald-stuffed, coming-of-age classics. I was being a snob and totally judging a book by its cover. My fears were completely unfounded. Ellisa Sun and her band were absolutely charming. We’re talking “Enchantment Under the Sea” scene from Back to the Future charming. They were fun jazz. Such a thing does exist!

Sun commands the room. Her voice is pretty, but that prettiness is overshadowed by its strength. It was practically athletic; a Ronda Rousey of vocals. There were some silly moments, like when she sang a mashup of “Pony” and “No Diggity,” but Sun has the musical prowess to be silly without being stupid.

Sometimes, though, there’s a time to be stupid — at that time of night when the corsages come off and people start getting stupid with their inhibitions. It takes smart music to do that. That’s where Californicorns came in. They describe themselves as a “big sweaty dance party filled with sentimental ballads and get-your-ass-off-the-wall jams,” and I’m inclined to agree.

They’re an incredibly sharp band. Vocalists Rob Ready and Derricka Smith tore up the stage with these expansive harmonies. Smith, in particular, has a magical sound. The whole band worked like one party-producing factory, pumping out jams that got the crowd moving late into the night.

The unofficial PianoFight takeover of Great American Music Hall was an evening to remember for sure. So much talent is bursting from the Bay Area, it was great to see three top-notch performers in one night.

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