“One time I got really caffeinated and decided to write a breakup song,” Ben Thornewill quips before launching into “Made for Ending,” a jaunty number that sets the tone for what is to come. Thornewill, lead singer of Jukebox the Ghost, positively sparkled in the power pop band’s performance at The Loft on Center Stage Saturday, Jan. 23 and was charismatic enough to effectively wipe away all concerns of the so-called “state of emergency” declared in Atlanta.
Opening for the trio was Greg Holden, best known as the co-songwriter of Phillip Phillips’ 2012 hit single, “Home.” While it is clear that Holden demonstrates the musical equivalent of a green thumb with catchy hooks, mastery over guitar and husky vocals — the quintessential qualities of the next great white-crooning-boy-next-door-who-makes-it-big — the powerful subjects of his lyrics almost felt more appropriate as the headliner of a charity benefit concert than an indie rock performance. In many songs, he tackles topics of classism, Syrian refugees, homophobia, toxic masculinity and police brutality. When it works, it works at the very core of our experience as a listener, but when it doesn’t, it draws vague discomfort, as if we’ve walked into a deeply personal confession never meant for our ears.
Contrasting spectacularly with the politically charged Holden (though drummer Jesse Kristin later donned a Bernie Sanders shirt), Thornewill sets up his keyboard with painstaking specificity, a precursor to the almost intimate relationship he has with his instrument, and proceeds to deliver a show with such energy that your mood and spirit is inexorably lifted. Somewhere along the line, I lost track of when I stopped taking notes on detailed minutiae and when I began bopping my head and hopping manically in place, simply because his fervor is so insidiously infectious.
Having formed in 2003 as undergraduates at George Washington University, Jukebox the Ghost continues to embody the same fresh-out-of-our-parents’-garage enthusiasm that makes them so endearing. Yet they simultaneously exude the seductive charm patented by generations of boy bands that transforms the front row of their show into a sea of churning arms, reaching desperately to close the distance between the audience and the magical molecules they generate onstage, making the author of this review wish he were the microphone being tickled by such an illustrious red beard for two hours.
Though their lyrical content and complexity does not traverse the deepest, most introspective ideas of what it means to be human, that is never their intention, and most importantly, they make no pretenses otherwise. Throughout the night we are gifted with crowd pleasers like the lively “Girl” and “Sound of a Broken Heart,” memorable harmonies laced through “Made for Ending,” fan favorite “Schizophrenia” where Thornewill darts his eyes to a different audience member with each hyper-fast repetition of “here they come,” a cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure,” their irresistible new dance anthem “Keys in the Car” performed for the first time in Washington, D.C. only four days earlier and a mash-up of “Postcard” and “Somebody” that makes you wish you could pack them into a suitcase and bring them on your next road trip as the friends with whom you roast marshmallows, lip sync battle and confide your deepest secrets. With each number, the crowd lifts them up by singing and clapping along at every opportunity and Thornewill peppers in carnal growls, vocal flips and delicate falsettos that bring variety to a style that could have easily become monotonous. Upon a rendition of the particularly haunting chords of “Undeniable You,” the machine Thornewill uses to loop his vocalizations ceases working, and he merely jokes, “That proves that I’m doing it live and not to a computer,” before continuing on with a grin.
Yet between these well-known performances, one almost gets the impression that their repertoire is not quite extensive enough yet to be able to avoid filler songs that intersperse their greatest hits and at times sound interchangeable with other numbers they’ve done. Jukebox playfully compensates by introducing a spinning wheel with arbitrary, unconventional song choices in each segment to choose a wild card performance, the crowd favorite being “Steve’s choice” left to the discretion of any audience member named Steve.
The most impressive aspect of Jukebox the Ghost is the effortless ease with which they balance frenzied, frenetic performance energy with total control of their instruments, vocal or otherwise. Thornewill alternates between arching and headbanging over his piano while tilting his stool at precariously obtuse angles and sitting placidly, letting a subtle smirk or cock of the head tease us as muscle memory carries his fingers flying across keys with the same aesthetically appealing, deeply satisfying acrobatics that make ballpoint pen calligraphy videos go viral. With such solidly practiced technique grasped firmly within such nimble hands, he navigates the waters of musical pick-me-ups so well established by predecessors like Matt and Kim, Noah and the Whale and Fitz and the Tantrums.
However, while Thornewill steals the show, this may be at the expense of fellow vocalist Tommy Siegel who comes across as almost bland, and the perpetually confused Jesse Kristin. And though we appreciate Thornewill’s enigmatic presence, we sometimes felt like observers to an inside joke he was having with friends backstage, whom he would constantly look back to and seemingly break the spell he had cast so well. And while performing in such a small and intimate atmosphere seems to be entirely their forte, we get the impression that their best qualities would struggle to be projected in larger, grander venues.
Nonetheless, we love Jukebox because they present an image of absolute, unapologetic authenticity. Of course Thornewill would emerge from backstage drinking tea from a paper cup, of course he would take such pride in “the fucking key change” of a song about black holes written for a children’s television show (and take such offense at the key change being left out of the final edit) and of course he would take the time at the conclusion of his concert to say a warm hello to a fan’s grandmother on the phone. We expect nothing less from him, and yet every act of sincere eccentricity continue to endear us to him more and more.
Jukebox the Ghost has accomplished something truly unique in capturing the novelty and giddiness in life, adolescence and even heartbreak and sharing it with us in a recklessly concentrated dose for a fully carefree, almost hedonistic evening — and for that, we are so grateful.