Every year, the Houston concert scene benefits from its proximity to big events in New Orleans and Austin. Whenever the Jazz and Heritage Festival or the Voodoo Experience is going on, multiple acts on their way to or from New Orleans will stop by and play a show in town. The same thing happens with Austin’s ACL Festival and the industry/press monstrosity known as SXSW. This brings up a whole host of questions regarding Houston’s self-perpetuating inferiority complex as a live music city. But there’s something to be said for having good bands in town to play full sets for dedicated fans rather than having to watch them do a truncated 50 minutes in front of a half-interested festival crowd.
This proximity effect was in full force at the House of Blues on Tuesday, March 13. With SXSW starting the next day, the main room was full of thirty-somethings eager to see ‘90s alt-rock legends The Jesus and Mary Chain. Meanwhile, over in the intimate Bronze Peacock Lounge, a truly all ages audience (seriously, there were couples in their 60s and kids under 10 in the crowd) was excited for a headlining set from Jukebox the Ghost. But first there was the matter of Jukebox’s two hand-picked opening bands.
The Elwins were already into their set when we arrived, and seemed to be having a great time on the Peacock’s small stage. The quartet played a batch of bright, happy songs, and the audience gave them a lot of love for their goofy, accessible stage presence. In a lot of settings, The Elwins dorkishness would make them a tough sell. But the Jukebox the Ghost crowd was already primed for an evening of nerdy, heart-on-the-sleeve pop music, and the band benefitted greatly from the audience’s good spirits. At one point, the band asked the crowd to clap along, and the crowd responded enthusiastically.
The next band, SPEAK, had a bit of a delay getting going, and there were clearly some equipment and audio issues plaguing the band. At various points during the set break, band members could be seen running through the crowd back towards the sound board to try and discuss something with the sound guy, who was, of course, absent at the time. But eventually SPEAK cranked it up and played a pretty strong set. Their sound leaned a lot more towards synth-rock, but they also took time to play a cover of “Stayin’ Alive”, which seemed to delight the audience.
Jukebox the Ghost finally hit the stage a little before 11 pm and proceeded to play for a good 80 minutes. They opened with a pair of songs from their last album, Everything Under the Sun, “Empire” and “Half-Crazy”. The former, with its relaxed tempo, was an interesting choice for an opener, but it didn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm at all, as they were singing along from the first word. Then it was time for the band to break out the dreaded “new material”, but the audience responded just as positively to the new stuff as they did to everything else. It probably helped that much of the school-age portion of the audience was on spring break during this week, but Jukebox’s infectious energy just seems to make people happy in general. Particularly their existing fans.
With their new album coming out in June, the band’s new songs are written and recorded, and they seemed eager to test them out in front of an audience. “Somebody” has a warm ‘70s pop feel thanks to keyboardist Ben Tornewill’s piano playing, and a heck of a disco-style backbeat. Another new song, the bouncy “Oh Emily”, is similarly percussion-oriented, with Jesse Kristin pounding the crap out of his drums throughout the entire song.
A couple of other new tracks were also worked into the first half of the set, but the band was clearly aware that those songs are more fun for them than they are for the audience at this point, so they were careful to mix in some crowd favorites along the way. The band’s first single “Hold it In”, made its appearance right in the middle of this part of the set, and nearly the entire audience participated in the song’s clap-along sections. As the set went on, they eventually got to Everything Under the Sun‘s big two songs, “The Stars” and “Schizophrenia”, playing them back to back. The audience danced and sang and bounced up and down while the band put just as much energy back out at the crowd.
Watching Jukebox the Ghost live brings out an interesting side to the band that isn’t as readily apparent on their albums. Namely, how important Kristin is to the band’s sound. As a trio consisting of piano, drums, and guitar, Kristin handles all of the rhythm and a great deal of the band’s low end. He uses his small kit to the fullest extent, also employing various maracas and other shakers on some of the slower songs. It’s easier to focus on vocalists Thornewill and Tommy Siegel and the catchy pop hooks they throw out, but Kristin gives the band all of its forward momentum and he’s very impressive to watch.
The set ended with several covers, including Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, which prompted a groan from the crowd when Thornewill introduced it. But he explained that they’d already played the song on their fall tour, and they wanted to honor Houston by doing a new, better arrangement of the song on this short tour. Then they went on to play about 1/2 of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, to the crowd’s delight. This caused Siegel to banter with Thornewill about the band gradually adding more and more tasteless covers until they morph into a wedding band. Thornewill also went on to complain about how they always get way more of a reaction from the audience to the Rick Astley song, but that “I Wanna Dance Somebody” was actually a much more difficult song to play. Sorry, Ben, one of those songs became a hugely popular internet meme, while the other is just a good pop song from back in the ‘80s. But the band clearly put much more work into the Whitney Houston song, and it was a very well-done cover.
For the encore the band pulled out Donna Lewis’ ubiquitous and annoying ‘90s pop hit “I Love You Always Forever.” Cheesy, sure, but still a lot of fun. At this point, though, it was past midnight, and the band was told they were running short on time. So they quickly closed the show with “Good Day”, the exuberant opening song from their debut album. The audience bounced along and left happy. But the band was ready to stay and interact with anybody who wanted to stay up extra-late and talk to them at the merch table. I was not one of those people, but it’s always nice when a headlining act wants to hang out with their fans after the show.