As you may recall from a previous blog post, I was planning on flying home to Omaha for a weekend in order to see one of my favorite bands, Jukebox the Ghost, perform. Well, ladies and gentlemen, that weekend came and went. I am on a plane headed toward Atlanta with Sharpie all over my arms and ready to tell you why.
Before I dive into the events of the concert, I think it would be beneficial to give you a brief intro to Jukebox the Ghost in case you aren’t familiar with them. Jukebox the Ghost is a three-part band made up of Tommy Siegel on guitar/vocals, Ben Thornewill on keyboard/vocals, and Jesse Kristin on drums/vocals for one song. (More on that later.) Tommy likes writing songs about the end of the world and drawing Van Doodles, which are exactly what they sound like— doodles done in their van between gigs, often based on requests from Twitter. They are excellent. Ben writes songs about love and looks like a cool version of my pastor. Jesse has a better sense of style than the other two combined and last year he signed my poster, but I didn’t ask him for a picture. Again, I think we covered this.
From their snapchat stories and various videos on Tumblr, I had an inkling of what to expect from the show, at least that they had a wheel and would probably cover a Queen song. Armed only with this information and the ultimate goal of getting a picture with Jesse, I drove down to Benson, parked in a very steep spot of questionable legality, and waited in line for an hour for doors to open.
This hour long wait may seem extreme, but it paid off because I was front row almost at the middle of the stage. It was the perfect spot for Mainland, the opening act, but slightly less perfect once they moved the keyboard right in front of me for Jukebox the Ghost. I’m not complaining— I literally could have reached out and held Ben’s hand if I’d wanted*— but it did block my view of the trap set. If I leaned over and bent down a little bit I could still see Jesse, albeit in a very creepy manner, but it worked.
Mainland were energetic and loud, in an extremely good way. I think they may be the missing link between my 80’s hair band phase and my modern alt rock phase. They are a four-part band from New York City, and their bass player looked to me like a cross between Daniels Radcliffe and Platzman (of Imagine Dragons), so it’s kind of hard to be disappointed. Unfortunately, they had sold all of their CDs by the time we made it to the merch stand— as it turns out, they didn’t know they would be touring with Jukebox the Ghost until the day before because the band that was supposed to open for them got sick and had to take a break. Despite the short notice, Mainland put on a great show and were cool enough to offer to sign the setlist I snagged.
After Mainland’s pump-up performance, Jukebox the Ghost took the stage to the sweet music of Bernie Sanders. I’m not kidding. At some point in his many years, Bernie Sanders recorded an album that includes him not-quite-singing, not-quite-speaking This Land is Your Land.
With the tone thus set, Jukebox the Ghost kicked off their show with the energy that is so peculiarly specific to them, I’m not sure I could draw a parallel to something more universal. It’s equal parts camaraderie, silliness, and true appreciation for music, each other, and the audience. I love Jukebox the Ghost because without the music, they seem like a group of giant goofballs who don’t take a whole lot of anything seriously. Once you listen to them, though, you find a band whose art is charming, well-crafted, and honest. Also, groovy as heck.
The two highlights that I anticipated were the Wheel of Torture and Hollywood, but naturally they both exceeded expectations. The Wheel of Torture is more or less what it sounds like— a wheel with songs that the band rarely performs live, as well as options such as “Hold it In Supreme” and “Steve’s Choice.” The former indicates a performance of Hold it In in which everyone switches instruments, and the latter means that Steve gets to pick a song.
Once it had been established that the Wheel of Torture was missing a part and being held together by tape and a kick pedal and a Steve had been located, Ben gave the wheel a spin. The first song was one I am not personally familiar with, but the second one was Black Hole, a piece they wrote for an animated show. Tommy explained that their original song was about three minutes long, but the producers cut it down to one and a half, losing their key change in doing so. He was careful to point out that the only other person who had pulled of such a key change was Whitney Houston, at which point Ben felt it necessary to add that he went to school with a girl named Whitney Houson and he consequently forgets to pronounce the “T” in “Houston.” So there’s a fun fact you probably don’t need anymore than we did, unless you’re Whitney Houson. Anyway, Black Hole was delightful and the key change was met with enthusiastic applause and cheering.
Now, you will remember that I promised to expound on Jesse’s role as a vocalist in band. If you don’t remember that, your third grade teacher was probably disappointed by your reading comprehension. Jesse does not sing for Jukebox the Ghost, with one exception: Hollywood. Hollywood is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard (and the music video is one of my favorite things on YouTube) and this is largely due to Jesse’s singing in the beginning. It’s everyone’s favorite part of the show and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
This time, Jesse brought it. More specifically, he brought a girl in a Jukebox the Ghost sheet ghost costume on stage and sang to her. He was charming and adorable and, I’m assuming by her reaction, made the girl’s day, if not year, if not life. I can’t believe I was lucky enough to witness first-hand such an overwhelmingly positive moment in an already delightful show, but I was, and it was absolutely wonderful.
I think it’s worth pointing out that Jesse changed into a Bernie 2016 shirt for this part of the show. Personally, I’m not a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Sanders (or any of the nominees on either side if we’re being perfectly candid), but I gotta say, I love how much Jukebox the Ghost loves Bernie. I almost want him to win the election just because of how happy it would make them.
While I knew Hollywood and the Wheel of Torture were coming, there were other moments that were just as wonderful and entirely unexpected. Now, in October, Jukebox the Ghost did a pair of shows called “Halloqueen” where they dressed up as Queen and played some of their songs. What I saw of it was delightful, but I of course was unable to attend, and had accepted that I would not have the chance to experience a Jukebox the Ghost version of Queen.
How lucky I was to be wrong.
I should have seen it coming when Tommy swapped out his guitar for a bass, but I didn’t until he started playing the bass line divisive enough to separate the 70’s rock fans from the Vanilla Ice enthusiasts. Under Pressure is one of my favorite songs of all bands, all genres, all times, and the fact has always been that I will never see it performed live by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. But to hear this song done by musicians I hold in such high esteem, and who hold the original artists in such high esteem, was the absolute greatest alternative I could have ever hoped for. It brought tears to my eyes.
Their cover of Bicycle Race brought tears to my eyes too, but for different reasons. Ben introduced it with a quick overview of Halloqueen and described it as a song about “transport,” so I guess we should have anticipated it. They took it to the next level by absolutely slaying the bicycle bell interlude. Which is to say, Ben and Jesse pulled out little bells and rang them for about a minute and a half, which many would argue is about a minute and 20 seconds too long. It was wonderful.
By this point, the show was coming to an end, and we had all more or less moved on from the Wheel of Torture and the private disappointment that we didn’t get to hear Hold it In Supreme. This is when they came back on stage and said that since we were such a great crowd, they were going to do it for us anyway.
Now, instead of being inches away from Ben, it was Tommy at the keyboard, looking very much less at home. I was slightly disappointed by how good they’re getting at playing each other’s instruments (Jesse’s guitar solos were on point), but I was absolutely not disappointed by Tommy’s anxious keyboard playing faces. They held it together very well, and Ben admitted that they had improved substantially since the start of the tour, and I now have seen with my own eyes a switcheroo that I once believed happened only in legends.
The final portion of the show I want to mention is Ben’s performance of Undeniable You. I can’t say much about it, because I was absolutely rapt, but I would encourage you to look for a live version of it in its entirety— it is ethereal and mesmerizing, and an absolute gift to witness live (and three feet away.)
After the show was over, I met up with some friends who had come separately and we waited in line to buy band merch. This is when I met Mainland and bought myself their vinyl record, as well as a poster and car air freshener from Jukebox the Ghost. Afterward, with my final mission in mind, we went back to area in front of the stage, where Ben, Tommy, and Jesse were out signing autographs and talking with fans.
I finally had my chance to take a picture with Jesse, and I explained to him while he signed my arm the time I met him and had him sign my poster but never took a picture with him and regretted it ever since so I flew up from Savannah to remedy that. I probably came across a lot crazier than I intended, but he was so gracious and agreed to take a selfie with me, making sure to get the Jukebox the Ghost banner in the background.
Before I continue, I should expand on something you may have caught in the previous paragraph. In 2014, I went to see the band CHVRCHES, and thanks to my friend’s dad, had a chance to meet them. Since I didn’t have anything for them to autograph, I had them sign my arm, and I liked the idea so I’m making it a thing.
Ben and Tommy were both equally friendly and happy to take a picture with me and sign my arm. By that point, my left arm was filled up, so when I asked Tommy if he would draw a Van Doodle he declared he needed more space and took up my entire forearm with a doodle of a man with small feet and “a nice butt.”
All in all, the show was absolutely incredible. Any words I can think of to fully communicate how highly I think of it are too general, weak, or otherwise incapable of expressing how wonderful it really was. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the band and chatting with them; I cannot believe how kind and generous they are with their time. I am so grateful to my parents for flying me out to Omaha for the show, and I want to say thank you a thousand times over to Mainland and Jukebox the Ghost for sharing their time and music with us. It’s something I will never, ever forget. Thank you.