Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, Roundhouse - hits and misses

Stacie Hess


There are good musical reasons why it might never have occurred to you to wonder how Lady Gaga would sound if adapted by Duke Ellington; Radiohead by Sidney Bechet; or Bruce Springsteen by Frank Sinatra. Even if you still think those reasons are aesthetically valid, you need wonder no more, because chances are that the extraordinary YouTube phenomenon that is Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, touring UK now, will have made that adaptation, and several million people will have liked it.

Sometimes the transformations are uncanny. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” has a completely different vibe even though rhythm, melody and lyrics are faithful to the original, thanks to the slower tempo and brassier, smokier timbre of instrumentation. Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”, rightly one of their biggest hits, gets a similar treatment, the bubblegum snap of the original replaced by a slower, swinging rhythm accentuated with acoustic rumble on piano and bass and swooping, swinging trombone and clarinet. Miley Cyrus’ “We Won’t Stop”, in turn, becomes an irresistible doo-wop ballad with sumptuous close-harmony vocals from Jukebox vocalists Mario Jose, Jack Dani, Brielle von Hugel and Cunio.

In each case, PMJ’s version is a better song. Sometimes, though, when working with better originals, we get two sides of the same coin, a compelling alternative with a completely different flavour. Versatile singer and saxophonist Chloe Feoranzo, one of the few in the tour who also feature in the YouTube version, retains the melancholy resignation of Radiohead’s “No Surprises”, but turns its insistent guitar and synth drone into a mournful swing ballad, with keening clarinet and lugubrious acoustic guitar and bass.   

On stage, there’s choreographic snap to match the musical wit. Retro songs call for an energetic dance routine, and with so much "ass" in the lyrics, it’s no surprise to find many a gyrating rump on stage too. There’s more to PMJ than turning a winking eye to stereotyped routines, though. The most explicit routine amusingly reverses gender stereotypes, with a prone Cunio appearing to fellate the bell end of Chloe Feoranzo’s saxophone. There’s also postmodern character in the self-aware humour of Cunio’s MCing, and bursts of it from the band, too: drummer Martin Diller gave us a satirical Phil Collins tribute that brought the house down.  

The effectiveness of the adaptations is uneven, however. In some cases the postmodern part of the jukebox act lapses, and reaction from the audience suggested that they were just as happy with singers belting, old-school, Broadway covers that really put the max into climax. Without the innovative twist, these songs became derivative, and much of the middle section of the show consisted of more lightly adapted material suited to a traditional jukebox musical. There wasn’t much postmodernity to “I Will Survive”, though Emma Hatton’s potent delivery left her determination to keep going in no doubt. “Dancing In The Dark”, meanwhile, was delivered in a silky croon by Mario Jose, but such emollience nullified the grizzly machismo of Springsteen’s original. Cunio’s rendition of “Thriller”, meanwhile, was a little bizarre: there can be few songs that benefit less from stride piano and banjo.

The Roundhouse vocal soloists certainly have the hoarsepower for the big stage

More of a franchised concept than a band, in that there is large corps of personnel rotating according to date and venue, Postmodern Jukebox has grown at an astonishing pace, in the first instance via its YouTube fanbase enthusing about songs that were generally filmed in founder Scott Bradlee’s living room. The pianist and arranger created his first ragtime pop adaptation in 2009, but didn’t pursue the PMJ concept seriously until 2013. By the end of 2014, they were touring Europe, such is the power of YouTube.

Few of the regulars from the American lineup, such as Haley Reinhart or Morgan James, are on tour. The Roundhouse vocal soloists, American singers Brielle von Hugel, Jack Dani, MC Cunio and the upcoming British musical theatre performer Emma Hatton, were all in powerful voice, and certainly have the hoarsepower, as it were, for the big stage. Von Hugel was a star of the talent show American Idol; PMJ offers a useful platform for big-stage performers wishing to demonstrate dexterity as well as a big top end.

It’s not clear, however, whether the less experienced lineup affected the choice of repertoire, specifically some of the less innovative and successful songs. The arrangements last night varied from the sensational to the ordinary. Musical niceties about whether swing versions of contemporary pop work can be set aside, but a winning concept needs a little more consistency and quality control.