It was one of those nights where I wondered where I’d been all my life.
I’d never even heard of Scott Bradlee, let alone his Postmodern Jukebox Orchestra [PMJ]. But turn down a pair of tickets to Radio City? Never!
And that’s why I felt so stupid. After seeing the posters slapped on to the plywood surrounding a building site for PMJ’s Oct. 7 show, I hastily YouTubed them to see what I’d been missing—which is a whole lot. Turns out pianist/arranger Bradlee founded his ensemble (at Radio City, it comprised piano, upright bass, drums, three-piece horn section, a vivacious tap dancer and 20 or so stellar vocalists) in 2009, then began shooting YouTube videos of contemporary pop, rock and R&B hits in swing era, doo-wop, ragtime and Motown settings. He’s since accrued over 450 million views and over two million subscribers; when he came out toward the end and related how he started it all in a small basement apartment in Queens, he marveled at how he’s now brought PMJ to four continents and 30 countries.
Like I said, where have I been all my life? The show reminded me of Kid Creole and the Coconuts at their peak, i.e., the Coati Mundi Years: camp but highest quality original songs and performances, and while Bradlee’s PMJ songs aren’t original, their arrangements and performances most certainly are.
At Radio City, the set included songs from the just-released PMJ album Essentials, among them “Hey Ya!” (sung by Sara Niemietz), “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Casey Abrams), “Seven Nation Army” (Haley Reinhart), “My Heart Will Go On” (Mykal Kilgore with Maiya Sykes and Aubrey Logan) and “Creep” (Reinhart again, with everyone in the hall waving their lit up cellphones the way they used to do with Bic lighters).
Reinhart, incidentally, finished third on Season 10 of American Idol and released a debut album for Interscope the following year (2012). Musical theater/pop vocalist Kilgore also stood out as the troupe’s terrific emcee, and while it’s not on the new album, I particularly enjoyed Logan’s “Bad Blood,” as it answered a burning question in my mind: What would a Taylor Swift song sound like if sung by a grownup with a grownup arrangement? The answer, at least in the case of Logan and Postmodern Jukebox, is great.
Bradlee recalled how at the beginning he played solo piano gigs at restaurants in Queens in front of a dozen or so people, but he made exceedingly good use of them. He clearly learned how to play most anything, any time, and demonstrated such by asking the audience to shout out names of artists, whom he then strung together in an impromptu piano piece of Prince, Bruno Mars, Queen (when he got to the “Mama mia” bit in “Bohemian Rhapsody” everyone sang it out) and even Super Mario Bros.
He also summed up the evening, and his brilliant Postmodern Jukebox Orchestra concept, thusly: “You guys decided real music and real talent is something that’s important to you–and I promise to keep doing my part.”