Music review: Postmodern Jukebox, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There’s no denying the crowd-pleasing appeal of Postmodern Jukebox’s playful swing and jazz reinterpretations of classic songs, but too often they sound like history with the rough edges smoothed off, writes David Pollock

Postmodern Jukebox, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ***

The tour schedule of American “vintage” music interpreters Postmodern Jukebox is enough to bring the hardiest musician out in a cold sweat. Pretty much daily, up until Christmas this year, they’re touring around the globe, back and forth between Europe and North America, with jaunts to Australia and New Zealand.

This tells us two not-unconnected things; that New York jazz musician Scott Bradlee’s playfully reinterpretative swing and jazz covers band are hugely popular, and that they remain an ongoing money-spinner, over a decade after Bradlee first began making viral YouTube hits in his distinctive style.

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Postmodern Jukebox
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The house was full for this Edinburgh stop on the tour, and there was a crisp professionalism to the way the group – six musicians, four singers, rotated in as the songs demanded, plus one crowd-pleasing tap dancer – went about their business. The enthusiasm of the audience stayed at a steady simmer, and occasionally boiled over at moments when real virtuoso skill was deployed.

While the song choices were strong, however, the Jukebox often produced clean-cut versions of music which had previously built its timeless reputation on honest rawness. Would many of those in the audience, for example, have rather seen the White Stripes perform Seven Nation Army over the pulsing double bass riff version here, Aussie rockers Jet’s original Are You Gonna Be My Girl? or Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters instead of this smoky, Shirley Bassey-like take?

Most strikingly, the absorption of Leonard Cohen’s raw, faltering Hallelujah into the glossy TV talent show canon was bolstered by Effie Passero’s version here. Her voice was powerful, phenomenally so, but the song’s roots in imperfection of performance and of human intention are airbrushed out when it’s given this treatment.

Another recently co-opted classic, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel’s Running Up That Hill, worked more effectively in a country twang, and there was much fun to be had from a personable, ground-up reinvention of the Spice Girls’ Wannabe, a washboard version of Rihanna’s Umbrella and a doo-wop My Heart Will Go On. It was still history with the rough edges smoothed off though.