Photos and article by Melanie Stangl
After living in Pittsburgh for over four years now, I can safely say that April is the month with some of the nicest weather in the Steel City. Which made pop-rock trio Jukebox the Ghost’s arrival on the 13th, as part of their brief touring run, perfectly timed. The line before doors, which extended down the stairs of Mr. Smalls, waited patiently in jeans and t-shirts, rather than shivering in heavy coats. The timing worked out in another way too—the band had dropped their first new single in years, “Stay the Night,” a week earlier. So there was ample cause for the excited buzz when doors opened promptly at 7 PM. The music wouldn’t start for another hour, but the younger crowd gathered in close to the stage, while older fans made a beeline for the balcony. I ended up in the third row, slightly left of center.
As a relatively casual Jukebox listener before this, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the night. But what I got was a performance packed with enthusiasm, charm, and impressive talent. Each act engaged heavily with the audience, both during the songs and the moments in between, as if to make sure we were having as much as fun as they were. Between the performers’ high energy, frequent surprises (such as good jokes, Queen covers, and band members switching instruments), and the peppy pop-rock sound that characterized most of the songs…it’s safe to say, we did.
Pittsburgh natives Blue of Colors kicked things off with charisma. Their vibe ranged from pop-punkish to cool and moody, but their energy never faltered, and the crowd was already clapping along by the second song. Frontman Steve Soboslai was genuinely funny throughout their set. An example: before starting the midtempo, head-nodding track “Coordinates,” he had questioned whether he was still in tune. Afterwards he quipped to the audience, “It was in tune…are you guys in tune?” He tapped his chest, then clarified, “In your hearts?”
They played a few more tracks from their full-length, Small Little Pieces, including “Your Face” and “Goodbye Stranger” (their closer, and my personal favorite), as well as a fifteen-year-old Superdrag cover, “Feeling Like I Do.” They did it justice, and afterwards, Soboslai soberly admitted, “When they broke up…there was a short period of mourning…but every day is a gift…I’m fine.” From their sense of humor to their obvious joy (and comfort) in being up on stage, to Soboslai’s statement that “this city has more charm than any other place on Earth, I believe that,” they won the audience over, and were an enjoyable start to the show.
The room had become substantially more crowded during Blue of Colors’ set, and the crowd chatted happily as the next group set up. I couldn’t risk running to grab a quick drink without losing my spot, so I persevered, thirsty, going through photos to pass the time.
Up next was a Canadian band, The Elwins. They (accurately) describe their sound on their Facebook with lines such as “upbeat indie pop” and “dance-y bliss.” Their driving drumbeats (provided by Travis Stokl) and lively keys made them a perfect match for Jukebox the Ghost. But the four-piece soon proved that they were no one-trick ponies. With seamless transitions between songs, the three non-drumming members regularly switching instruments and spots on stage, and recurring standout instrumental parts such as church-organ-sounding keys and prominent basslines, it’s clear there’s more than just pep in The Elwins’ step.
They too quickly engaged the crowd with clap-alongs, compliments (“This place is so fricking cool;” “You guys sound beautiful,”), and the magnificently-mustachioed keyboardist/guitarist, Feurd, passing his tambourine to a crowd member in the front row for a song. They played older tracks (including the catchy, frenetic “So Down Low,” which has racked up over 840,000 plays on Spotify) and tested out some new material as well. Their sense of humor was also on-point. When Feurd retrieved the tambourine from the crowd, this prompted a conversation about an idea for a band, The Trampolining Tambouriners, between main singer Matt Sweeney and singer/bassist Frankie Figliomeni. They briefly discussed both its merits and logistics, to the audience’s delight. They peppered slower tunes (such as the new “Don’t Let It Grind You Down,”) throughout their set, which kept things well-paced and not overwhelming.
I certainly had fun while they played, and the enthusiastic reactions from my fellow attendees made it clear that they did too. If you still dig the high-octane energy of pop-punk, but want something a bit more mature, melodic, versatile and fleshed-out, The Elwins just might be for you.
The crowd was bigger (and chattier) than ever as we eagerly anticipated the headliner. Between my three hours of sleep the night before, my inability to get a beverage, and the steadily-decreasing space between bodies in the front rows, I was starting to feel a bit lightheaded. But still I was excited, running off adrenaline from the first two sets, and stoked about what Jukebox the Ghost would have in store.
That turned out to be a staggering amount of talent, cohesion, and energy. The group (with Tommy Siegel on guitar and vocals, Ben Thornewill on piano and vocals, and Jesse Kristin on drums) completely filled the room with impeccable, joyous sound—something that’s hard enough for a fuller band to achieve, but it seemed near-effortless for the trio. They’re natural-born performers and truly impressive musicians. From Thornewill’s smooth, flawless vocals with an impressive range, to Siegel’s handling of complex guitar parts with flair and ease, to Kristin’s fantastic driving beats that never faltered for a second, there were no cracks whatsoever. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Siegel’s great voice as well, along with Thornewill’s mastery of the keys.) Their decade-plus-long experience with performing together was obvious. And above all, they were having so much fun on that stage: making jokes, getting the audience clapping multiple times, breaking into genuine smiles both during and between songs. Even if you had never heard a JTG track before seeing them live, you’d find it impossible not to get swept up in their infectious energy and jaw-dropping chops. (They also included a few covers you’d probably recognize…but more on that later.)
They came out clapping, kicking things off with “Somebody,” the dance-friendly opening track from their 2012 release, Safe Travels. Siegel moved around the stage, leaning into the audience close to me for the first of several times. The crowd, to quote my notes, was already “stoked,” cheering madly and grooving to the music.
“Made for Ending,” off of their self-titled full-length, was next, which kept things lively, while “Don’t Let Me Fall Behind” switched things up a bit with a compelling highway-driving vibe. Afterwards, Thornewill showed his sense of humor, remarking, “This is the first time we’ve come here in years that there hasn’t been a blizzard…so, you’re welcome.” The audience’s love for them only grew as the set progressed with “Schizophrenia,” “Long Way Home” (which featured Siegel on an acoustic guitar, and great back-and-forth harmonies between him and Thornewill), and their lively, Queen-esque new track, “Stay the Night.”
I couldn’t (and in total honesty, didn’t want to) keep track of each song title; I was too busy snapping photos and enjoying the hell out of myself. But I can tell you they included standbys such as “Girl,” “Sound of a Broken Heart,” and “Stars,” as well as some newer material from the record they’ve spent the last long while writing. That new song was described as “an upbeat little ditty about the existential dread of having children…and it’s a love song.” It featured a low piano solo, the semi-triumphant line “We could be so boring,” and a rollicking beat that was just a bit slower than their typical fare. I liked it a lot; it’s a promising sign of what we can expect from the new album.
I also can’t not mention the “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover. Not an abridged or amended version, either—they delivered the entire thing, and it was amazing. I never would have anticipated that a three-piece band could pull that off at all, much less with all the flourishes and a perfect guitar solo, but they did it. (We did need to help them with the back-and-forth vocals in the middle, but everyone was already singing along anyway.) The group has a running tradition of hosting a “Hallo-Queen” concert in October, in which they pay tribute to one of their key influences. So this choice wasn’t totally out of left field, but it caught me off-guard in the best possible way.
Other highlights included Kristin coming up to sing the first part of “Hollywood” (to the crowd’s delight), and a Wheel-of-Fortune-esque contraption, with a different artist under each spoke, which Thornewill offered to an audience member to spin. Whatever the wheel landed on, they would play that cover. This time, it was “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles. Thornewill self-deprecatingly remarked afterwards, “That was not a cover for purists,” but it fit their style well and they pulled it off just fine.
As a final surprise of the night, for their encore they broke out another cover song. Was it a Queen track? Or maybe Bruce Springsteen, or Huey Lewis and the News? Nope. It was none other than Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” And damn if I didn’t believe that Thornewill actually did feel that way, with the conviction and fun he brought to the performance. It was hilarious, and my penchant for old pop music compelled me to sing along with every word. For the actual finale, they played their version of a slower ballad, “The Spiritual.”
All this to say, Jukebox the Ghost is one of those bands you need to see live, even if you don’t think you do. It was an incredible night of music, heart, dancing, and sheer fun. I left thirsty and exhausted, but very happy…and thankful that it was April, so I wouldn’t have to shiver while I waited for a Lyft back home.
Keep up with all the bands on Facebook: Blue of Colors here, The Elwins here, and Jukebox the Ghost here. (The JTG Twitter account is worth a follow as well; find them at @JukeboxtheGhost.) And if you missed my Q&A with the band, check it out here.
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Jukebox the Ghost
Blue of Colors