Review: Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox at The Birchmere

My regular readers know that I had to take a break from blogging for a few weeks, both due to changing jobs and the holidays. So it seems fitting that I return to regular writing with a piece about a band that embodies one of the key virtues of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog: that somewhat hard-to-define Italian quality known as “sprezzatura”, which Castiglione writes of so glowingly in his “Book of the Courtier”. For as I discovered last evening at The Birchmere, musician and arranger Scott Bradlee has that quality in spades, as indeed do his friends who make up the members of Postmodern Jukebox.

For those unfamiliar with Bradlee and his band, PMJ takes modern pop songs and arranges them into different musical styles – whether Prohibition-Era or ’50’s Jazz, Classic Country or Motown. The right performer is selected for the right arrangement of the song, and a video of the result is then released on YouTube for us to enjoy. It is smart, it is sometimes infinitely better than the original, e.g. the entire auto-tuned Miley Cyrus catalogue, and it is FUN.

Last evening’s performance at The Birchmere in Alexandria was fun from the start. The show included elements like silly jokes combining contemporary life and nostalgia, such as Facebook Messenger in the style of a 1940’s radio show ad, and when Bradlee himself came out on stage for the first time, he sat down at the piano and began playing the theme music to Super Mario Brothers. It was also a pleasure to see not only the performers themselves dressed stylishly for an evening performance – no torn jeans or tats in sight – but to see many members of the audience dressed up themselves, in suits and ties, evening dresses, and even a few tuxedos here and there in the crowd.

The energy in the room did not lag one moment during the entire evening, something very rare indeed at any concert, particularly for one that was almost three hours long and standing room only. We were informed that the sold-out show that evening was the largest PMJ has played so far on their current tour. One could easily believe that the audiences will grow even larger, and the sold-out shows more frequent, the more this band becomes known.

Returning to where we started, “sprezzatura” can be understood as the art of making things look effortless. Castiglione advocated that the gentlemen and ladies who read his book study hard, and learn as much as possible, but then make their work seem easy. Given the extraordinary range of talent on display last evening, there were no doubt countless hours of lessons, practice sessions, rehearsals, and so forth which lead each of the performers to the point where they could entertain a large audience for several hours. Yet what struck me was the quiet, effortless confidence of those on stage. They know they are good at what they do, but are never pretentious about it: they are having a great time, and they want you to have a great time as well.

In particular, Scott Bradlee himself was something of a revelation. I already admired Bradlee’s inventiveness as well as his skills as a pianist. There are some piano phrases in the PMJ recordings of “Call Me Maybe” and “All About That Bass” that I would go back and watch repeatedly to try to get a sense of what he was doing with his fingering and phrasing. As a classically trained pianist who gave up on the instrument at 18 after my last recital, I could appreciate the technical skill on display, even if I could not reproduce it myself.

What surprised me a great deal last evening was that Bradlee was not the bandleader insisting on hogging the limelight fr himself. In fact not only did he not emcee, as I had expected he would, but he did not say one word until about 2/3 of the way through the concert. He was there to play, and to make his fellow musicians look good, but he was clearly not interested in having the spotlight for himself for any longer than was necessary, no matter how much he clearly deserved it given his genius. And that characterization is backed up by moments such as when, probably to no notice at all from most, Bradlee unexpectedly slipped in a quote of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as a background bridge in the middle of a song, or took suggestions from the audience and on the spot created a jazz mash-up of songs from Queen, Frank Sinatra, Beyonce, and George Michael, combining them into a song of his own invention.

PMJ are beginning the European tour shortly, and those of my readers on the other side of the pond would do well to avail themselves of the opportunity to see these incredible musicians. You will come away not only impressed, but you will also have a great deal of fun. And you will have an excuse, should you choose to take advantage of it, to dress up and go out to a concert for an evening, maybe do a little dancing with the one you love – like adults used to do, before the culture decided that being an adult was something bad. It’s terrific to see musicians and indeed an audience with a greater appreciation for the music, style, and fun that our grandparents’ generation had, while not abandoning the music of today.

Frankly, I can’t WAIT to see PMJ again in concert, next time they return to DC.

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Postmodern Jukebox last evening at The Birchmere

 

Britney Spears and the Power of Cheese

The other night during my “special guest star appearance” at the local pub quiz – sadly, I don’t get to play as often as I used to – our team had a bonus round question which I found difficult to answer.  The question was, “Who was the only music artist to have had 14 music videos retired from Total Request Live?”  The answer ended up surprising me, although not in the way I first thought that it would.

I should explain for those who do not know, that back when MTV still played some music throughout the day, Total Request Live was a countdown-type program.  A music video voted by viewers of the show onto the countdown successfully for a month was eventually “retired”, i.e. callers were no longer allowed to continue voting for it.  This kept the turnover of music videos going, while demonstrating a particular artist’s level of popularity.

There was much debate at pub quiz as to who had achieved said popularity with MTV viewers back in the 2000’s.  Various acts were suggested around the table, but one fellow in our group insisted that the answer had to be Britney Spears.  I repeatedly rejected this, explaining that I doubted I could name more than four or five Britney Spears songs in total, let alone fourteen that were so popular that they would have been formally “retired” by MTV.

Despite my doubts, in the end the team decided to go with this answer, which turned out to be the right one.  Surprised that it was correct, I took a piece of paper, and began to write down the names of whatever Britney Spears songs came to mind.  It turned out that I could not name four or five.

In point of fact, I could easily name ten.

We don’t always realize how insidious the entertainment industry is in our present culture, until we notice the impact it has on what we might call the “background” in our lives.  Music, film, and television are all-powerful forces, even if we think of popular entertainment as nothing more than an outlet which we turn to as needed.  We may not realize it, but these works really do find their way into our subconscious, so that suddenly, we can find ourselves thinking of the lyrics to a song, or a scene from a film, and making a neural connection between that piece of entertainment, and something decision or challenge before us.

Thus, it’s important to think about the nature of the material that we are taking in, because of the lasting effect that it can have.  We don’t always stop to consider the consequences of such a decision, even as we allow such things to surround us throughout the day.  The music we mindlessly sing along to during our morning and evening commutes to work, for example, if we analyzed it, we would likely find lacking in redeeming qualities,  It often doesn’t match up with how we live our lives, or the people and ideas we hold dear.

Now of course, I’m certainly not going to say that you can’t ever enjoy some cheesy pop.  If I did, that would be both short-sighted and enormously hypocritical of me.  Not only does Britney Spears’ tune “Toxic” just so happen to be one of the best-crafted, catchy pop-dance songs ever written, but also because I do enjoy a good evening of singing pop karaoke from time to time, where I belt out songs by pop acts like Billy Idol, Weezer, and Lady Antebellum.

What’s important, it seems to me, is to recognize that you need to be consuming substantial entertainment, not just living on processed cheese.  If you supplement your entertainment diet with great works of music, film, art, literature, and so on, to counterbalance the easily disposable stuff, you will be better off.  You don’t have to give up the easy stuff altogether.  Just be sure to go for the real stuff, as well.

Detail of "Still Life with Cherries and Cheese" by Joseph Plepp (1632) The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Detail of “Still Life with Cherries and Cheese” by Joseph Plepp (1632)
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Never As Good?

With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another.  In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances.  “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.”  I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.

Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader.  Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole.  This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.

This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.

One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it.  Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.

This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely.  What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.

This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief.  It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due.  We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.

Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering.  We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death.  Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering.  In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.

This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.

Judith 8: 25-26, 27

Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise.  Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.

There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come.  It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.


Still from the video for “Never As Good As The First Time” by Sade