Vintage sounds, modern hits: Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox plays Aspen
If You Go …
What: Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Saturday, Dec. 19, 8 p.m.
How much: $60 GA; $125 VIP
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
Scott Bradlee was playing jazz piano in New York bars and restaurants two years ago when he created his YouTube golden ticket: the ingenious Postmodern Jukebox.
Bradlee, 34, began posting weekly videos of performances of contemporary hits and TV theme songs in jazzy throwback arrangements under the band’s moniker. Viral fame followed and Postmodern Jukebox’s channel currently has 1.7 million subscribers and, to date, 366 million views.
But Postmodern Jukebox is more a movement than a meme. The YouTube following has translated into a global touring act for the irreverent jazz collective — this year Postmodern Jukebox played on four continents and the Wheeler Opera house booked it to play the historic theater’s grand re-opening on Dec. 19 (which has since been moved to Harris Concert Hall, due to construction delays).
Bradlee said the notion online fame was a bit mysterious to him until he took the show on the road.
“It became real when we did our first tour,” Bradlee said recently from New York. “Our first show was in Toronto, where I’d never been. We didn’t know if anybody would come. We didn’t know if YouTube views were real people. And we went out to a packed house.”
Bradlee shoots the Postmodern Jukebox videos in his home with a rotating cast of musicians, the performers depending on what his arrangement calls for. So how to take that on the road meant rethinking the concept.
“Definitely the big challenge for me was figuring out what our stage show was going to be,” he said. “Most people are familiar with the videos, which are shot in my living room. So were people thinking we’d bring my living room on the road?”
The Postmodern Jukebox road show instead has been a wildly successful 21st-century spin on the tried-and-true variety-show format, bringing out various musical configurations and guest artists with a collaborative spirit Bradlee compared to the Rat Pack. Bradlee’s rotating team includes as many as five vocalists, a tap dancer and a full band with a horn section.
His reimagining of contemporary pop hits starts with the words.
“I really look at the lyrics and think about how I can change the context and make it work,” he said.
For example, he gave Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” from “Titanic,” a close read and was struck by how its sentiment evoked 1950s soul music.
“It’s something Jackie Wilson would have sung in the ’50s,” Bradlee said. “So I found a singer that can do Jackie Wilson. That’s what I like best, to take a song that’s familiar to a lot of people and make them hear it in a whole different way.”
Sometimes the Postmodern Jukebox interpretations seem absurd at first glance. Sisquo’s “Thong Song” in the Latin jazz style of Louis Prima? Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” as a beatnik coffeehouse slow jam (with, naturally, an upright bass)? A 1950s doo-wop take on Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”? Seriously?
Seriously. The key to Postmodern Jukebox’s earworms is that these selections really work musically. They’re not novelty songs. This isn’t like that country band that busts out gangster-rap songs for a few cheap laughs.
“It comes from a real place,” Bradlee said. “It’s a real project in a sort of alternate universe of these songs.”
To make the magic happen, after Bradlee decides how he wants to reinterpret a song, he finds the right singer for the sound he’s after, he does the same with instrumentation, he works up an arrangement, and then he brings everybody into his living room and gets them in costume. They’ll practice for a few hours, then shoot a live version and post it online. They roll out new releases at least weekly. Lately, the Postmodern Jukebox YouTube channel has filled with new interpretations of Christmas and holiday songs — so expect a dose of those when Bradlee brings the Aspen show.
As a kid, Bradlee was a jazz afficianado who looked down on pop music. As he matured, though, he came to appreciate the far reach of popular music. And now, ironically, he’s using people’s recognition of pop music to bring millions of new, young listeners to throwback modes of music.
“I want everybody to experience this whole alternate universe of Postmodern Jukebox and to appreciate this talent that is maybe not getting recognized in the mainstream,” he said.
YouTube stars rising
Postmodern Jukebox is among a wave of YouTube stars who are translating online viral fame into touring success.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki discussed the phenomenon of YouTube stardom in July at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen.
“One of the things I did not fully appreciate until I came to YouTube was the intensity of the relationship between the viewers — particularly the younger viewers — and the creators,” she said.
She recalled her first experience at VidCon, an annual gathering of YouTube stars in Los Angeles, which showcases acts like Postmodern Jukebox, and seeing fans wait as long as eight hours to meet video creators.
Wojcicki also pointed to a survey commissioned by Variety last year that indicated that, for an ascendant generation of Americans, YouTube is an entertainment king-maker. It found that among Americans ages 13 to 18, YouTube stars are far more popular than musicians or actors or comedians who emerged from the traditional path. The top five entertainers were YouTube stars Smosh, The Fine Bros., PewDiePie, KSI and Ryan Higa (if you haven’t heard of them, you’re probably older than 18 and/or don’t have teenage kids). The late Paul Walker was sixth. Katy Perry was ninth. Johnny Depp pulled up the rear at 14th.
“The top five stars among teens right now came from YouTube — they didn’t come from Hollywood,” Wojcicki said.
Based on that, it’s safe to assume that many YouTube-minted musicians are likely to follow Postmodern Jukebox onto local stages.
The game has changed so much with YouTube fame that an artist like Bradlee, uploading wildly popular videos from his living room, doesn’t need a record label to get millions of fans listening and supporting world tours.
“I never rule anything out, but we’re past the point of needing one,” he said. “We’ve had so much success by ourselves.”
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