And they say that time travel isn’t possible. For fans of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, it’s more modern fact that science fiction — at least musically.
“We want them to escape reality and join us for the most sensational 1920s party this side of ‘The Great Gatsby,’” said Bradlee, the collective’s founder and main producer, in the project’s official bio. “We want them to experience what it was like to be at the New Year’s Eve show that Sinatra would have hosted in the 1940s. We want them to feel the excitement of hearing the greats of Motown live and up close. Our goal is to give our audiences their favorite show again and again and still have it feel like the very first time.”
Postmodern Jukebox will perform Feb. 18 at Silver Legacy. Bradlee told the Chicago Tribune in January that this type of act works for several reasons.
“When you hear something familiar with a new twist, that’s cool for people,” he said. “They’ll recognize a Justin Bieber song and start singing along even though it’s played in a different style.
“What I find more often than not, people will tell us they didn’t think they liked jazz or Motown or doo-wop. But when they hear it with something familiar, they’re like, ‘I love this style.’”
The concert, according to what Bradlee recently told Cincinnati.com, will be in a variety-show format with an emcee, five or six vocalists, a tap dancer and the band itself. Bradlee said the format connects well with live audiences.
“It’s like going to New Year’s Eve with the Rat Pack,” he said. “That’s the vibe we’re going for.”
Transformations in song
Postmodern Jukebox refers to itself as a “rotating collective” in its bio. Its best known transformations include a doo-wop version of Miley Cyrus’ dance-pop tune “We Can’t Stop” and a big ballad revise of Radiohead’s noisy rocker “Creep.” At last count they had more than 450 million YouTube views and close to 2 million subscribers on their channel.
Bradlee’s role in Postmodern Jukebox, according to his bio, is to pick the songs, create the arrangements and shows, and put together the performers. While it may be tempting to use any song with this format, Bradlee recently told Pittsburgh City Paper that he’s very selective about what gets a reworking. And, it may not be an expected song either that works best.
“Surprisingly,” Bradlee said, “it’s much easier to adapt an electronic-sounding song than something that already has a throwback feel.”
The Postmodern collective is a mix of unknown talent and some folks with a following, including former “American Idol” contestants Casey Abrams, Joey Cook, Haley Reinhart and Blake Lewis. The most frequent vocalists, on video or album, are Reinhart, Morgan James and Robyn Adele Anderson.
One of the more unusual performers is Mike Geier, who performs in clown-face and costume under the name Puddles Pity Party. His PMJ take on alt-pop singer Lorde’s hit “Royals” was named by that artist as her favorite among the many web cover versions of her song she’s heard.
Creating ‘an amazing experience’
These reworkings of pop hits all started with Bradlee, who grew up loving jazz and played a lot in the NYC jazz and off-Broadway scenes, including arranging and performing mashups of modern music in more 20th-century styles.
Bradlee said in his official bio that he posted his first Postmodern video in 2009: “I was broke and living in Queens, New York. Seven years later ... we’ve sold out shows across four continents and we’ve become a showcase for an incredible group of performers. Every single one of our cast has unique superpowers. I take pride in putting together the right powers and personalities to create a unique and amazing experience for our fans.”
In the interview with Pittsburgh City Paper, Bradlee said he didn’t think that Postmodern Jukebox was going to be as successful as it turned out.
“It’s always very hard to predict what’s going to take off,” he said. “I don’t think I had any inkling of the possibilities, of how far this could go.”
Bradlee told Cincinnati.com that Postmodern Jukebox players record live in the studio or on video at the same time in the same room, just like the vintage recordings they hope to emulate.
“If aliens came and the whole fossil record was wiped out except for the music that we have today, they’d probably come to a conclusion that Earth had been taken over by singing robots,” Bradlee said. “I think we’ve moved towards kind of an era where the pendulum has swung pretty far in favor of computerized music and electronic music and not really using the organic sounds of voices and instruments, and that’s kind of what Postmodern Jukebox is addressing.
“We’re trying to swing the pendulum the other way and do everything with no Auto-Tune and do everything using real musicians and real instruments instead of computerized stuff.”
Bradlee told the New Brunswick Daily Record in New Jersey in a recent interview that the combination of modern songs and old-time arrangements give Postmodern Jukebox a timeless appeal.
“You blend the familiar element of the song with nostalgia for a past time, even if it’s a time in which you didn’t live,” he said.
Even though the arrangements for the songs are by Bradlee, he told the Daily Record that all the performers are encouraged to contribute.
“Someone will have an idea and we’ll include it,” he said. “There’s room for people to put their personal stamp on songs.”
Bradlee praised his varied troupe during the interview with the Chicago Tribune.
“There’s so much unforgettable amazing talent,” he said. “We put people on stage who have trained their whole life, (who are) dedicated to learning their craft. When you’re coming to our show, you’re not seeing video screens. You’re seeing really talented people doing what they love. For us, we want the talent to be center stage. When you see that, it changes your perspective on what’s possible without any electronics.”