The city that never sleeps roared into life in the past lane on Sunday night with the first Israeli concert of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, a tap-dancing, booty-shaking band that reimagines popular songs into 1920s jazz and ragtime numbers.
The group that started in bandleader Scott Bradlee’s New York City basement with a few friends filming covers to upload on YouTube has morphed into an international powerhouse, with more than 60 musicians, singers, and dancers rotating out of simultaneous tours around the world. From their humble beginning as a few friends around a basement piano they now have a combined billion views on YouTube, hundreds of concerts per year, instructional books for musicians and a tell-all book from Bradlee about how he took a small musical startup and scaled it up into a successful business.
The band arrived in Israel for the first time on Sunday night, filling Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv with an enthusiastic crowd that sang along to all of their favorite numbers. The group exploded onto the stage with a 1930s jazz rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and didn’t stop moving for its entire 2-hour, 15 minute show.
One of the most enchanting parts of a Postmodern Jukebox show is its tap dancers, this time Anissa Lee, a Los Angeles-based tap dancer who also sews her own costumes. During “Hedwig’s Theme,” a rendition of the Harry Potter movie score, Lee tapped so furiously the red feathers on her costume detached and floated into the air behind her.
Although the songs are already well known by the time Postmodern Jukebox puts them through their ragtime ringer, the subtle changes to rhythm and timing made by choosing which notes to belt out to the rafters and which ones to whisper in a conspirational tone alter the message of the music in surprising and delightful ways.
One of the highlights of Sunday night was vocalist Brittnie Price’s soulful, shimmering rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Her version struck a more poignant, personal chord with every teenager who’s ever felt left out of the popular gang in a way the Radiohead version never did.
The ten-member group also included Andrew Cox on saxophone and clarinet, Kalia Vanderver on trombone, Tuomo Uusitalo on keyboard, Tom Jorgensen on drums, and vocalists Dez Duron and Mario Jose. Craig Leach,
Sam Auty, and Carol Evans provided behind-the-scenes support.
Postmodern Jukebox sold out its Tel Aviv show and many others along its six-week European tour, even in places that don’t have an organic history of ragtime and Roaring Twenties jazz.
“The culture of swing is a global phenomenon at this point,” bassist Adam Kubota, one of the band’s founding members, said prior to the show. “There aren’t many places you can go in the world that aren’t going to have had some exposure of these rhythms to some degree.”
Other highlights of the Sunday show included N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” and an entire cast rendition of Haddaway’s “What is Love,” which Kubota said is one of his personal favorite moments from the show. “Everyone is really into it, it’s natural, and really organic,” he said. “The audience responds when there are performers that are genuinely having a good time on stage.”
Since Tel Aviv was the last stop on this tour, the enthusiasm was palpable, with band members giving each other piggybacks and twirling around on stage during the last numbers. When the band came back for its encore of crowd favorites Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” and Toto’s “Africa,” the crowd exploded. When the lights finally went down after a final band selfie, a few of the vocalists wiped away tears.
In some respects, Postmodern Jukebox is more of a business model than a band. The group has become a springboard for aspiring musicians, and each tour has a rotating list of characters, some of whom appear in the band’s YouTube videos and some of whom are new to audiences. They also have a YouTube channel for kids, Postmodern Juicebox, teaching kids about jazz music theory.
The band’s cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” was the first video to start amassing views.
Each year, the group runs a talent search to recruit new members to its growing list. Kubota uses business terms like “scale up” when describing its rise to fame, and credits bandleader Scott Bradlee, who was not on the current tour, as being the business force that helped the group adapt from a bunch of musician friends jamming in a basement to where it is today.
But Kubota said the ever-changing makeup of the band is one of the secrets to its success, creating unique shows that change with every tour. “We have so many different performers it keeps it fresh for us as musicians and for the audience,” Kubota said. “For the audience, they can see someone they never heard of before.”
Future plans for the band include expanding more into new markets, including South America and Asia, Kubota said.
He added that the band loves seeing up and coming artists on YouTube, and finding its own ways to reimagine covers of popular songs or discover its own voice. Kubota’s advice to new artists using YouTube as a platform for launching their careers? “I don’t think there’s any specific tricks,” he said. “Sometimes people stop or edit themselves. Just keep putting up stuff consistently, and don’t ever read the comments.”
As Kubota looked out at the Mediterranean Sea, preparing to head back into the venue for final sound check, he shook his head in disbelief at how a group of friends created a musical movement, from a humble basement to playing sold-out venues around the world.
“When we started this in 2011, we got paid in falafel,” Kubota told the audience towards the end of the show, holding up his fingers in a big, fat zero. “Then again, you guys know, falafel is great!” he added, to cheers.
“I don’t think any of us expected this,” said Kubota. “We thought maybe we’d do a tour or something, but nothing like this.”
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