Introduced with a brief musical flourish from the six musicians — drum, string bass, piano, trombone, clarinet/saxophone and guitar/banjo — the host of the mid-week (Jan. 25) Postmodern Jukebox show at the Englert (and also one of five vocalists) quickly clarified the nature of the performance with humor and aplomb: We would go back in time with Hanson, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and others.
Most of the audience seemed acquainted with the band’s YouTube videos and were familiar with the gimmick: contemporary pop music (including “Toxic,” “All About that Bass” and “Stacy’s Mom”) reconfigured and presented through the aesthetics of the 20s-50s (primarily jazz and doo-wop). The first song — a Dixieland rendition of “Call Me Maybe” — alerted any newcomers to precisely what the next two hours would provide. This included stellar performances from the instruments, dancing and a tap dancer.
There’s some audacity in taking formulaic 21st-century music and contextualizing it into formulas from another time. This saves the group from becoming an incredibly talented and musically proficient cover band. On the other hand, the doubled formula melded into a new formula nonetheless seems formulaic at a certain point. The group managed to avoid becoming boring through standout individual performances — just when one tired of hearing either the “doo wop” or the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” the clarinet would be featured, or the trombone. Or the tap dancer would come forward.
The decentralized aesthetic, as well as the appropriation of other songs and styles, works to allow Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox to tour without Scott Bradlee. No one singer or performer takes the spotlight: It is an ensemble production, which keeps the energy of the band circulating throughout the stage. The group is incredibly precise and well-rehearsed: the fact that the band moved through its series of jokes, visual gags, instrumental solos and vocal deliveries in exactly two hours (from the first piano note to the final song of the encore) is a testament to its rigorous practice.
This has the advantage of allowing the group to provide excellent entertainment, from a face-off between the drummer and tap dancer to a “conversation” between a singer and the trombonist. The disadvantage to this kind of show, however, is a lack of space for anything organic to emerge. Each performer, although individually talented and able to work smoothly with the others on stage, has very little autonomy. In spite of the inflections of early jazz and the presentation of different solos, one sensed that there was little improvisation offered on the stage.
One thing that allows the group to work is a relative absence of irony: The songs are presented in a straightforward way, as though they were not cleverly reworked covers of familiar songs. At times the renditions allowed for a delay in recognizing the “real” song, although this created a tendency to focus on discovering the original rather than appreciating what was offered. “Stacy’s Mom,” the 2003 Fountains of Wayne tongue-in-cheek ode to MILFs, was the most problematic precisely because the original song is itself constructed ironically. From this perspective, it was inferior to the cover of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the original of which is written in earnest, even if it is saccharine.
My favorite song of the night was Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” which was reconfigured as a song that would seem appropriate to a sunny day at the beach — far from the tonalities of the original. “Sweet Child of Mine” was improved by the use of a clarinet solo instead of a guitar, or at least it suffered in no way from this interpretation. I also appreciated their versions of “Thrift Store” and “Toxic,” although I had not heard either song (aside from title) before that night. Overall, I wished that the band would have focused more on the early styles (the big band and Dixieland sounds) than the later (doo-wop) — but that has more to do with my aesthetic preferences than any lapse in quality.
It was during “Sweet Georgia Brown” that I realized that the nature of the band — an ensemble of individually talented people who tweak the rules of the game in an unexpected direction — was as similar to the Harlem Globetrotters as it was to a cover band or a show choir. The goal of Postmodern Jukebox is to offer a performance. Like “appearance,” the notion of “performance” is always twofold. They perform, rather than play, the songs — and, despite the lack of irony, this performance seems somewhat rooted in an inauthentic space. The performers take a distance from the songs, which makes sense in that they are not responsible for the lyrics or music — merely in its presentation (which itself is highly scripted).
This helped me understand why I felt as though I was watching a musical, at times, as much as a band: The performers were acting roles in spite of a lack of plot or character — or, perhaps, if there is a plot, it lasts for exactly one song before switching again. This, I believe, is what is true about the name of the group: Postmodern Jukebox. It offers a pastiche of styles and genres from a performative dimension that is incredibly well done, but which is not owned or appropriated by the band as a distinct entity. A good contrast is Iowa City’s the Dandelion Stompers, which also performs covers of songs from the 20s but performs as a band (organically) rather than an ensemble (with pre-set parts).
The sound was perfect from my seat in the balcony: I could hear the high notes of the piano, the subtle inflections of the women’s lower range, the breathy nuance of saxophone and clarinet. The performance as a whole showed that music is truly timeless in its themes — our songs of love and loss are just as personally gripping and formulaically delivered now as they would have been in the 1930s. Although $45 is more than what I would generally pay for a two hour show, I feel as though the act is worth seeing if only to witness it as a spectacle — and I have no doubt that those who are more partial to musicals or pop radio stations found it far more thrilling than I did. While I was never particularly gripped by any one performance (and the nature of the group creates significant breaks between each song), I was very impressed by the individual members of the group and the evening as a whole.