Last night, rounding the corner from Tremont Street and approaching the 16th Street Mall, I was greeted by a long line of sharp-dressed folks with retro pin-up hairdos and sport coats with tails. This stylish crowd was buzzing with anticipation of seeing YouTube sensations Postmodern Jukebox live and in person at the Paramount Theatre.
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ) is a rotating collective of independent artists and musicians who turn pop music vintage. Who’s Scott Bradlee? You can find him playing piano in the background of PMJ’s hundreds (thousands?) of YouTube videos, of which they record a new one every single week. PMJ performs hot Top 40 hits in a variety of styles — none of which share any qualities with your standard pop tunes — from jazz, swing and gospel to Motown, soul and ragtime. I found it personally hard to identify most tracks until they hit the chorus, they were so thoroughly disguised in tone and delivery from their original format (plus, I’m just not that hip to what the kids are listening to these days). It reminded me of seeing Bob Dylan play his own music about a decade ago in Atlantic City — the songs differed so wildly from their original elocution that they were barely recognizable until about halfway through.
PMJ currently has five singers, each taking turns belting out one glorious song at a time, with some duets and the trio of ladies singing more than a few tunes together in harmony. The cast of singers varies greatly in appearance and style, adding to the thrill of the show. No two acts were alike, keeping the audience enraptured and engaged throughout. Because each performer sang just one song each before passing the baton (and changing outfits, from elbow length gloves and glittering gowns to matching monochromatic houndstooth suits and boater hats), this severely enhanced their delivery. It was hard to pick a favorite performer because just when I’d decided I liked one the best, they’d switch and the following performance would blow away the last. The show continued on like this for about two straight hours, from the opening doo-wop version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to close.
The outstanding showmanship and commanding stage presence of each singer, combined with the backing band and high energy tap dancing and high kicks of Demi Remick (in her assortment of overall onesies), gave the vibe of being at a Broadway show more than just your average concert. Relentless jazz drumming, scat singing, cascading trombone bursts and the teasing tone of most songs took us on a journey back in time when vaudeville and dramatic delivery was the norm. And so many shrieking falsettos. The concert was truly an exciting experience — a real variety show.
The highlight was easily the few acapella tracks that took place towards the end, especially Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” a song which I’d never previously considered the lyrics until having heard this version of it. PMJ transforms songs by Britney Spears, Jet, Smash Mouth and Tears for Fears (and Hanson, Notorious B.I.G., Ginuwine, Gwen Stefani, Bruno Mars, Drake, Justin Timberlake and about one million other bands) into something entirely different and radical. We encourage you to fall down the rabbit hole of their YouTube channel along with their other 3.3 million subscribers.
At the end of the day, PMJ is a cover band with an impressively talented cast. This conclusion became obvious when they covered “Shout,” the ultimate wedding song. A cover band they may be, they’re the best around. I’d certainly hire them for my wedding if I could afford them. Scott Bradlee and his troupe are doing something very noble and unique. They’re drawing an audience that we can’t imagine listening to Sia and Lady Gaga at home, making today’s pop music accessible and enjoyable for them, while simultaneously bringing a style and genre of music to an audience that might otherwise not have divulged from the spectrum of pop. Taking the new, making it old and vice versa. And they’re doing a damn fine job of it.