Local power pop trio Jukebox the Ghost was still celebrating the release of "Let Live & Let Ghosts" when they took the stage at the Rock & Roll Hotel Saturday night and also gaining momentum for their trip down to Austin for SXSW. As impressive as their fun, energetic and catchy set was, I was more impressed with the following. The group seems to be on the cusp of breaking onto the national scene, but as relative newcomers, I was surprised by how many people came out for the show and even more so by how many people already know all the words.
The trio bounced out of the gate with the bright and hooky "Good Day," the first cut on the record. It's really hard to avoid referencing Ben Folds Five when discussing Jukebox the Ghost -- both bands are witty, fun-loving, piano-led trios straddling the line between pop and rock -- and it might be a disservice to both bands not to make the reference. If you haven't heard Jukebox the Ghost but were a fan of Ben Folds Five, seek out this band. You will love it. Folds may have traveled this road first (in Joe Jackson's footsteps), but Jukebox travels further, to where Folds might have gone had he not chosen to ditch his rhythm section and start rocking the suburbs. And Jukebox didn't bother with any heavy-hearted, lumbering balladry, though it was clear they've got the right players to pull a slower, weepier sound off without a problem. Jukebox also sets itself apart by implementing Tommy Siegel's razor sharp guitar riffs and letting keyboardist Ben Thornewill handle the bottom. Thornewill's vocals are a departure from Folds, too, delivered with a rapid-fire, tongue-twisting dexterity, which matches that of his classically trained fingers. He fits more words into one moment than anyone around, and nowhere better than on "Good Day."
Despite having an album still so fresh, Jukebox wasn't afraid to venture away from it into even fresher material a couple of times. They even played a cover of Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life," which they had just recorded in New York for a guilty pleasures compilation featuring bands as indie-luminous as Of Montreal. Guilty they were, but in their hands, the gawdawful song revealed itself to be a pretty good composition. Though their reading was true to the original, they claimed it as their own, as if they should have been the original arrangers, and they infused it with their infectious energy. Jukebox itself is a sort of guilty pleasure for its saccharine flavor. I had a sort of "High Fidelity" moment and thought of John Cusack listening to Lisa Bonet sing "Baby I Love Your Way."
While most of the set featured happy songs of love and sun, the centerpiece was the three-song segment about the apocalypse lifted directly from the album -- "Fire in the Sky," the post-punky "Where Are All the Scientists Now?" and the rousing "A Matter Of Time." With some horn borrowed from Fredericksburg-based opener Tereu Tereu, that third part begged the listener to push forth despite an impending end, as Siegel and Thornewill shared the vocals "Keep on pissing and keep on drinking and keep on eating and keep on s------- ..." Then more of drummer Jesse Kristin's post-punk rhythms on "Victoria" took the trio closer to straight rock and roll, hinting at the British Invasion in more ways than just the title.
"Light Myself on Fire" was a terrific song to exit on, as it moved from a lovey piano ballad into a brilliant crescendo and finally a jagged, hyper-jangly glam rocker complete with Brian May guitar squeals. Again, the large crowd showed off its love of Jukebox with perfectly timed handclaps in unison. But when the band did leave the stage, you knew it couldn't be over. No way they'd call it a night when this crowd was so adoring, and no way they'd call it a set before playing "Hold It In." But when they did return, the held it off a little longer, as Siegel took the lead vocals for an homage to the District and led the crowd in a chorus cheer of "Gimme a D! Gimme a C!" while Thornewill provided the squeals with his synthesizer. And, of course, they delivered with "Hold It In," which best demonstrated their versatility and make-it-look-easy changes of tempo, as Kristin's sticks led the band through vaudeville and pop and rock and back again and forth again. Thornewill's tongue was back to its trickiness, bookending the set with his wordplay. If Jukebox the Ghost is this tight down in Austin, these incessantly catchy ditties are sure to grow a substantial fanbase beyond the East Coast.