BWW Review: Postmodern Jukebox Brings the Riffs Back to OC's Segerstrom Center
What began in 2009 as a celebrated internet sensation with a massive cult following (and more than a billion views) that eventually became the international phenomenon that seamlessly blends big band sounds with pop chart toppers, the super talented ensemble of contemporary-meets-vintage sounds known as Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox continues to entertain and enthrall audiences at every stop.
It is no surprise that Bradlee's inspired and wonderfully genre-crossing creation---which recently just finished up its third wildly-received appearance at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa---still garners near sold-out concerts attended by rabid, frenzied fans whose screams of delight are more akin to stadium acts like Shawn Mendes or Taylor Swift. The group's latest concert tour entitled "Welcome to the Twenties 2.0" is their take on a Jazz-Age revival timed, appropriately enough, as another 20's decade enters into our lives. The concert, thanks to the group and their enthusiastic audience, turned their Costa Mesa stop at the otherwise fancy-pants Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall into a genuine party atmosphere that welcomed everyone of various backgrounds and ages.
What's awesome is, yes, Postmodern Jukebox's shows are literally a shared, communal experience equally enjoyed by young and old. The grandparents will love the big band-era sounds that, sure, feel and sound like Lawrence Welk on multiple Red Bulls. The boomers and Gen-X'ers will love the endless vocal riffs that would even make Mariah and Ariana sit up and notice, and the young'ins will love hearing their favorite radio or Spotify playlists come to life with a slightly skewed "retro" sound that's not at all square or unhip.
My first experience with the group---besides being an early fan online---was back in 2015 when the group made its live O.C. debut as part of the Center's Off-Center Festival, a month-long program that provided "alternative" or avant garde acts to the theatrical campus. At the time, Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ for most of us fans) was already selling out shows globally, but they were still a word-of-mouth act that was more widely-known as the awesome musicians featured in many shared video posts on someone's Facebook wall. But, surprise, their first show was packed and the screams were loud---as if the group has existed for an entire century.
The show was a stunning debut, featuring their now signature showcase of jazzified pop hits with its founder, the handsome and appropriately stylish Mr. Bradlee, behind the piano acting as both emcee and the group's de facto leader and resident piano prodigy. For the group's 2017 return to Costa Mesa, Bradlee---to everyone's surprise---wasn't behind the piano for the show, but he did make a special "guest appearance" towards the latter half and eventually found himself behind the piano, providing the audience with a live recreation of his infamous online "impromptu" piano sessions wherein his viewers type in suggestions of popular (and sometimes truly old school) songs and he in turn, right on the spot, composes a makeshift medley of said suggestions in the musical styling of Ragtime. In the concert versions, attendees shout out various songs out loud and, if he remembers them, plays them one at a time in a gloriously stunning, seamlessly continuous mashup.
Bradlee again made a "surprise guest appearance" during PMJ's third Segerstrom Center appearance on June 15 (he sat in my row during the first half of the concert), and not only did he revive his signature impromptu bit, but also joined in on the big band fun via his fun new instrument, the Key-tar---that totally awesome 80's power band synthesizer keyboard that's worn like a guitar. With PMJ's frequent tours and multiple in demand appearances around the world, it was genuinely cool that Bradlee was able to rejoin the group he founded in its Costa Mesa stop.
At its core, PMJ's place in live music is a clever, remarkable premise, really, that evokes awe and wows from a wide age demographic: the group takes popular hit songs---everything from Prince or Justin Timberlake to Lady Gaga and, yes, Taylor Swift---and refashions them as fabulous, very old school 20's or 30's era jazz-hot compositions that are heavy on vintage big-band bombast as well as riff-tastic vocalists that leave you completely breathless at their seemingly effortless abilities.
Seriously, if you're looking for a show that features some of the most expressive, complex vocal gymnastics ever uttered on a stage, look no further than a PMJ concert, which gleefully yet humbly trots out some of the most amazing vocalists that, I mean really, should be HUGE music stars on their own right. Chief among the riff-masters on display was the concert's emcee and, at times, lead vocalist Mario Jose, who stunned---and I mean stunned---the audience with a goosebumps-inducing rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" that had the audience mesmerized. That by itself was worth the price of admission alone. Blessed with a voice that can sweetly croon and fiercely slay, Jose's vocal work was some of the most incredible male singing I've ever heard in any live concert. Beginning with Sam Smith's jazzified "I'm Not The Only One" then later a growling, blues-y version of Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River," and even a Justin Bieber cover of "Where Are U Now," Jose encapsulates the PMJ experiment to its richest possibilities.
Jose, alongside his duties as host, also provides exemplary work as occasional back-up, doo-wop-er for the other singers in the line-up: Olivia Kuper Harris, Joey Cook and PMJ newcomer Therese Curatolo. Harris' highlights include lovely jazz-flavored covers of Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night," Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning," and David Bowie's "Life On Mars." Pixie-like Cook entertained with her antiquated covers of "Hey There, Delilah" by Plain White T's, Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop," My Chemical Romance's "Welcome to the Black Parade," (an odd choice, but actually bests the original, IMO), and a stylized cover of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy." For her part, Curatolo impressed both fans and newbies alike with her takes on Paula Abdul's "Straight Up," and Paramore's "Misery Business."
Throughout the evening the foursome would also trade positions, singing solo on one song then serving backup vocal duties the next. My favorite group numbers featured the ladies doing enjoyable covers of Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" (a PMJ audience favorite), Portugal, The Man's "Feel It Still," and Justin Bieber's "Sorry." I also absolutely loved Jose and Curatolo's duet on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."
Joining in the fun is tap dance soloist extraordinaire Anissa Lee and a surprise (kinda) appearance by everyone's favorite, adorkable "Tambourine Guy" Grammy Award-winner Tim Kubart (admittedly, my friend actually commented how loud I shrieked with delight when he leaped out on stage---seriously, his happiness and buoyant demeanor truly makes everything in the world alright, and after missing his presence during the last PMJ OC concert, it was so fun seeing him do his thing here again).
If you have yet to experience Postmodern Jukebox live in concert (rather than just view their lovely YouTube video covers), then you're missing out on hearing some great musicianship both from its incredible band and its rotating roster of stunning singers. Nothing beats hearing live, unfiltered, genuinely great vocals in person, and with a PMJ concert, you can never leave unsatisfied or completely entertained. Plus, seeing the unabashed joy from "Tambourine Guy" will erase all the shit of your bad day, guaranteed.
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Photos by Dana Lynn Pleasant, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
For tickets or more information on other concerts or entertainment offerings at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, visit SCFTA.org. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For more Postmodern Jukebox tour dates, visit postmodernjukebox.com.