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More than a cover band: Authenticity as an art

by Adam Sobsey

In Adapt’s inaugural post, our founder wrote, “How can we speak with authenticity and care and also remind people of our brand purpose?” That question catalyzed authenticity as an abiding Adapt concern, whether we’re talking about corporate social responsibility, about the way businesses oriented themselves around last year’s fraught electoral season, and plenty more.

Authenticity can be an elusive ideal for a rock cover band. The point is usually to summon the work and presence of other bands and pursue little or no identity of your own. But what’s remarkable about a pair of popular current cover acts, Postmodern Jukebox and Lexington Lab Band, is that both succeed in establishing their own musical legitimacy and their own authentic brands.

They arrive at their authenticity in two ways. One is by the apparently contradictory means of constructing layers of both sonic and visual artifice around and underneath the music, some flamboyantly obvious, some deftly concealed. The other is by their unabashed and uncorrupted expression of the music they love precisely as they hear and see it.

Postmodern Jukebox, originally a viral YouTube sensation that has since evolved into a polished video project and international live touring act, is heavy on theatricality. Lexington Lab Band, on the other hand, is almost austere in their avoidance of it. Yet the two bands have more in common than it might seem (other than both having covered Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”). They not only find new life in music we likely thought was played out long ago; they perfectly express their founders’ identities without making them the stars of their own shows.

“If I like [PMJ’s] version of this song by Nickelback, does that mean I like Nickelback?”

Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ) is the brainchild of pianist Scott Bradlee. Under his creative direction, a rotating and ever-expanding cast of musicians reconceives and remakes familiar modern megahits into brassy showtunes, ragtime workouts, and torch songs of yesteryear, performed live by emotive chanteuses, stylish clarinettists et al in flapper dresses and zoot suits. By turning “Sweet Child O’ Mine” into a bluesy old Bessie Smith-like plaint and Nickelback into Motown, PMJ transforms the ethos of rock and roll into something else entirely.

At an early age, Bradlee found himself out of step with the songs of his time. “I was definitely an old soul,” he says. He fell in love with music through “Rhapsody in Blue,” not “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and he developed an early knack for taking almost any modern tune and playing it as a vintage number: “a party trick,” he calls it, but he’s also aware that, through it, he’s “connecting to the generation I should have been born in,” as well as mining the inspiration of his childhood: that most formative yet awkward — and most authentic — of times, which in our adulthood most of are at pains to keep hidden. Instead, Bradlee wears it proudly and plays it loudly; from his party trick springs PMJ’s entire artistic universe and its enormous success today, with 5.5 million YouTube subscribers and a beloved  international touring act.

Bradlee is quick to acknowledge that “a lot of people had done genre transformation before us.” But he gets just as quickly, and succinctly, at what sets PMJ’s approach apart: “The difference with us is that we crafted a whole universe around it.” Their everything-new-is-old-again aesthetic allows you to hear the continuously evolving line of music history all the way back to the Roaring Twenties (which, as PMJ has not missed a chance to remind us, are here again a century later… right after another viral pandemic.) PMJ’s musical reworkings also have the capacity to change listeners’ opinions of some of the originals they cover. As Bradlee puts it, “If I like [PMJ’s] version of this song by Nickelback, does that mean I like Nickelback?”

Sometimes [viewers say], ‘You look like a bunch of lawyers or a bunch of old dads and moms.’ Yeah, we are, that’s who we are.

Lexington Lab Band (LLB), a community of central Kentucky musicians, has far less dress-up and razzle-dazzle going on than PMJ — t-shirts and jeans, bare stages, no clarinets — but their take on the art of the cover band is, subtly, more radical. Rather than set music in an earlier time, LLB takes it out of time altogether; and where PMJ makes vintage novelties out old hits, LLB painstakingly recreates the original material with bravura skill and startlingly soundalike accuracy. In doing so, they reawaken it without changing a note, revealing its durability and artistry— which is precisely why it remains popular, and why PMJ can repurpose it so effectively.

On its surface, LLB’s act is simple. They take deep, four-and five-song dives into the oeuvres of iconic bands spanning from classic rock to Grunge (with the occasional country detour) — and not just any bands. LLB has chosen to cover some of rock’s most notoriously difficult groups, like Steely Dan, Rush, and Boston. Like PMJ, LLB records live, and the liveness is important to the concept: these deceptively complex tunes were originally crafted in studios over weeks and months.

As importantly, the performances are captured in close multi-camera visual detail and then carefully edited into videos that are equal parts tutorial and revelation. LLB’s musicians spend several weeks independently working up their parts, which are carefully assigned by LLB’s founding impresario, Mike Vandemark, and his closest collaborators. Then the group assembles, usually in a rented local auditorium, where the only “audience” is a film crew whose cameras capture the performance with what Vandemark calls a complementary “clean look” that has evolved over time into a signature aesthetic.

“Early on we tried some sliding cameras and a little jib, but it started to make it feel less authentic to me,” Vandemark told Adapt. “We use monopods now. We do a floating camera look; we don’t lock off. We use the auditoriums’ overhead incandescent lighting, and we just do an easy little focus plot, turn them up, color-balance the cameras. It becomes about the song and the performance of the song rather than a fancy lighting show. Some of our musicians say, ‘Hey man, we really need to face out when we play, the lights need to coordinate.’ I’m like, ‘No, this is our look.’ And sometimes [viewers say], ‘You look like a bunch of lawyers or a bunch of old dads and moms.’ Yeah, we are, that’s who we are.”

It would probably be a better world if we all allowed ourselves to feel so free, to communicate who we really are and what we really believe rather than try to figure out what will sell.

A key to LLB’s aesthetic is that we see those dads and moms — and virtually nothing else. Each song gets three takes (Vandemark blends them into one). Repositioning the cameras between takes makes it possible to conceal the crew in the final video edit. By protecting the scene from intrusion by the apparatus that captures it, Vandemark brings the viewer all the way inside the musicians’ rarefied environment. LLB’s clean look gets us to listen more closely and hear the songs more clearly — and we also see flashes of joy and connection that escape the musicians as they succeed at a level of challenge higher than they’re usually called to.

A key to this is the way Vandemark edits the videos, which are heavy on closeups and light on their feet: few full-band shots and frequent cuts from one player to the next. The taut focus and pace take some getting used to, but that’s because “I’m editing with my ears,” Vandemark says. “People will often say it sounds better than the original, but that’s because they’re seeing it differently” — they’re seeing it the way the aficionado hears it.

And Vandemark himself is often surprised by what he hears. “I get the mix to a point where it sounds pretty good. But then I’ll add some video to it. And as soon as I see it, the mix automatically sounds better, without even tweaking it. When you start to see what people are doing, it improves the quality of the mix.” Maybe it’s important that you see what the rhythm guitar is doing while the lead singer belts out the refrain. “You go, ‘Oh, I never knew that guitar did that,’” Vandemark says, or how that guitar interplays with the vocals. “You really hear it. And it’s not that it’s super loud in the mix. It’s that your eyes and your brain and your ears are all coming together.”

What we choose to leave out is also an act of authenticity, if what remains is true to ourselves.

As for LLB’s authenticity, it suffices to say that when you choose to cover Foreigner, Journey, and other acts that have arguable claims to the title of Uncoolest Band in the Whole World, you’re daring to set store by your own inarguable predilections and passions, indifferent to fads and trends, reputation and opinion. It would probably be a better world if we all allowed ourselves to feel so free, to communicate who we really are and what we really believe rather than try to figure out what will sell. Not only because that’s often what winds up selling, of course; LLB’s YouTube subscriber base has increased tenfold in the past year alone, from 11,000 to over 100,000, despite limited marketing (everyone involved has a day job, including Vandemark) and irregular output.

More importantly, voicing our authenticity matters because it’s also, ultimately, the only song we feel good about having sung. And while we may notice the absence of conventional showmanship in LLB’s videos, what we choose to leave out is also an act of authenticity, if what remains is true to ourselves. Although Vandemark is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and singer, he nonetheless considers himself “more of a technician than an artist,” and it shows in LLB’s videos. “I like the academic exercise of breaking down the original stuff; I like to learn. That’s the heartbeat of it all.”

And there’s a heartbeat above, too, the driving tempo that gives it a higher purpose. “A lot of these guys and gals [in LLB] sing or play at our church, or churches around the area and central Kentucky,” says Vandemark, who is a pastor himself. Although religion isn’t part of LLB’s ethos at all, “I am who I am,” he says, “and you’re probably feeling the effects of who I am as a person throughout the project. Not everybody involved is a believer, but the community aspect [of LLB] comes from my faith. I really want to celebrate other people and help them achieve their potential.” Both he and Bradlee could say the same of the music their projects lovingly bring to life.

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