Why a Metalhead Loved the Pop Songs at Postmodern Jukebox

In 2009, Postmodern Jukebox founder Scott Bradlee was broke and living in a basement apartment in Queens. He began to post experimental music videos on YouTube that, unbeknownst to him, ultimately would help converge audiences of all genres and ages. One of the 100 people who watched the video was award-winning novelist Neil Gaiman, who then tweeted about Bradlee to his millions-strong Twitter following.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Postmodern Jukebox (a.k.a. PMJ) is known as a rotating collective of performers who have built a massive following by reimagining modern pop hits with a vintage, jazzy, swinging twist, from turning Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” into a country ragtime jam, to “No Diggity” into a ‘30s-style speakeasy jazz lounge charade. Now PMJ has over 315 million YouTube views, has topped iTunes/Billboard charts, and drawn praise from the likes of Beyoncé and Lorde. The band has sold out shows over four continents — and it’s mostly word of mouth. Each show, pianist and composer Bradlee picks the songs, creates the arrangements, and puts together performers. Each week, a new video emerges.

The show defers away from the typical concert and comes off as more of an emceed, vaudeville-esque showcase that explores the performers and vocal stylings of decades past, ranging from the ‘20s to the ‘90s, topped off with an incredibly talented tap dancer whose taps substitute for drums in some cases.

The group sold out Mesa Arts Center, with emcee/vocalist Blake Lewis waltzing out on stage in mustard pants and a red velvet suit jacket to announce that the live “experience” was about to begin. He encouraged the crowd to stand, dance, and sing along throughout the show.

“We're bringing you back in time to when texting was just a telegraph. When cameras had their own Instagram filter. And when auto tune meant being on pitch,” he announced grandly. Behind him, Scott Bradlee (who doesn’t always perform with the group) sat at a piano that looked straight out of the bar in Three Amigos, a standing bassist, drummer, and bandstand section that included woodwinds and trombone. 

The show opened with the three, glitter dress-bedecked female singers performing Iggy Azalea’s “I’m So Fancy.” Their strong voices hit all the high notes and they moved in choreographed style. Lewis returned after the opening act to add that the crowd was going to experience a cast of Postmodern Juke Boxes’ finest a range of singers before introducing New Orleans’ Joey Cook, a sultry, pink-haired flapper with a husky whiskey voice who belted out Britney Spears’ “Womanizer” with pouty gestures in all the right places.

Next up was charismatic vocalist/bassist Casey Abrams, who rocked Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One” in vintage New Orleans style.
Ariana Savalas sauntered on stage afterwards; a statuesque, dark-haired, fair-skinned lounge singer with a dramatic flair, calling every “dahling” and flirting with men in the front row. She sang an impressive rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” with tap dancer Sara Reich pounding out the drumbeats.

As I sat watching the show, I realized that PMJ actually made two hours of nonstop pop music tolerable. As a metalhead, it was the longest I’ve ever listening to radio hits. And the lyrics actually sort of made sense. But that isn’t the most surprising part. The biggest fascination to me was discovering that Postmodern Jukebox has bridge a gap between generations of music fans and their preferred genres. It proves that an organic, timeless style of music is appreciated no matter how old you are. I also couldn't help but wonder when they will start covering heavy metal songs. 

Between the emcee announcing different vocalists and the band, other songs included Savalas, Cook, and Haley Reinhart rocking Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” to choreography; Cook singing Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah” with her ukulele and accordion; ad Reinhart’s vampy, sex kitten rendition of Brittany Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again.”  

When Casey Abrams came out to sing Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child O' Mine” seemed to be when the crowd simultaneously hushed and cheered, really grasping the musical talent and passion that the artists possess. Abrams gripped the mic stand between his knees and hit all of Axl’s best notes. Every young musician’s dream, I suppose.

Throughout the evening the harmonies and instruments sounded fantastic on Mesa Art Center’s system, but the treble at times was turned up way too high. I was surprised more of the older people in the audience weren’t commenting.

The whole band and six vocalists came together for Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” before Savalas woke up (and ramped up) the crowd with a 15-minute skit involving a man in the front row held to her bosom while she joked, “Ladies, don’t you just love it when guys come quickly and you don’t even tell them to?” She slinked all over the stage and rolled on the piano while drawing out the lyrics to Blackstreets’ “No Diggity.” 

At this point, there was an interlude where the drummer and tap dancer mimicked each other’s beats on the tap pallet, the crowd going wild before being brought down again with the robust vocals of Maiya Sykes singing Adele’s “Hello” with just the piano to accompany her. And she hit those high notes like they owed her money.

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” got the all-ages audience on their feet and kept them there. I couldn’t help but smile at the two 60-plus men in front of me, who looked like they escaped from the Amish community for the show and didn’t sit down once. 

The Swift cover was followed up by a fun and comical version of Megan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” where female vocalists carried the lead while two of the musicians brought four hands in to walk up and down the standing bass. The only thing that would’ve made more sense is if they didn’t have the two tiniest female vocalists singing “I ain’t no size two…”

Other highlights included a big brass band punk version of Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacey’s Mom” and an incredible cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” — it was the first time we had a solo by the emcee and he mimicked all the turntable noises and special effects before leading into the chorus with a creamy voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison.

One of the songs that original got my attention, when I first heard Postmodern Jukebox, was the torch-like cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” It’s a stunner, and has almost 10 million views on YouTube. Haley Reinhart executed the song perfectly, bending all the way over to draw out the wails and high notes.

After concluding with an all-cast performance of a surprisingly delightful arrangement of “Such Great Heights” done up like The Jackson 5 instead of The Postal Service, the band returned for an encore, announcing that this very last song embodies everything that the audience saw on the stage that night. The tune? The classic “As Time Goes By” combined with The Strokes’ “Someday.” The band invited everyone in the audience to "dance" with them, prompting dozens of couples to stand up and slow dance in the aisles and in the area in front of their seats. 

Everyone left happy and satisfied, slowly twisting and dancing out of the aisles instead of the usual rush to the exits. It's been a long time since I've seen that type of generational crossover at a show, and one where the band enjoyed it just as much as the audience. 

Critic's Notebook: 

What: Postmodern Jukebox at Mesa Arts Center

The Crowd: A range of ages, leaning more on the middle-age side, surprisingly. Everyone from seniors with canes to 30-somethings dressed in flapper gear. 

Overheard in the Crowd: "This is f***ing awesome" said at least two people around me. Several times. 

Personal Bias: While it was in my top 5 shows of the year, the treble was a bit too high and left my ears ringing at times; plus, some of the performances could've been a bit tighter. But I guess that is hard to do with a revolving list of band members. 
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Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise