Novelty acts have it rough. Not only must they catch a popular song before it hits saturation, they have to come up with a clever riff on it, record it, and get it out to the public just long enough to have it be erroneously attributed to “Weird Al” Yankovic on social media. Postmodern Jukebox learned one of the secrets of the master early on: back up a unique take on a pop song with some good musicianship, and fans will come back to listen once the novelty parts wear off. Postmodern Jukebox brought its strange mix of pop-culture awareness and jazz music to Turner Hall Wednesday night for a little bit of swing, a little bit of soul, and a surprising amount of tap solos.
The Postmodern Jukebox operation started off in the New York basement of Scott Bradlee, but thanks to viral videos of the band’s covers of songs like “Thrift Shop” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” fans starting buying albums and supporting Bradlee’s efforts online. This show was Bradlee’s first time in Wisconsin and, in between the few cheese-related jokes required by state and county ordinances, he brought along some of his best singers to put retro spins on a variety of music. Postmodern Jukebox can take a good song and make it great, but more often it takes a terrible song and makes it good. Take for example, the 2013 Katy Perry hit “Roar.” In Perry’s hands, it’s a slightly catchy self-esteem anthem that will be driven into the ground by every romantic comedy trailer in the next five years. In the hands of singer Maiya Sykes and a Phil Spector Wall of Sound arrangement live, it gets a crowd singing along to a song that they would have flipped off during the car ride to the show.
Maiya, a new singer with Postmodern Jukebox, was briefly a contestant on The Voice, and she made a good argument for a better career path working with bands like this instead of winning the show. Her big voice added a lot to the songs she performed, including a New Orleans-style jazz cover of “I Believe In A Thing Called Love.” She was joined by Jukebox regulars who rotated in and out between songs to keep the energy up. Von Smith acted as the master of ceremonies, while dipping into some of his more famous numbers. Robyn Adele Anderson, featured in many of Postmodern Jukebox’s early successes, brought her unique vocal style to some great songs. The best parts of the evening belonged to Ariana Savalas, however, who played up her sultry voice with cabaret patter worthy of Lily Von Shtupp.
Everyone’s quick wit kept the crowd involved during a few sound missteps and the occasional cover that didn’t quite come together. Because of Postmodern Jukebox’s Internet fanbase, the crowd was a nervous mix of vintage cosplayers, WuTang nerds, and office managers already pre-gaming for Summerfest. But by the end of the night, a few folks were vaguely remembering the swing dancing lessons they took in the ‘90s, the crowd was singing along to Miley Cyrus (by way of Motown), and Postmodern Jukebox showed Milwaukee that it’s hip to be square.