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Concert Review: Jukebox The Ghost with Travis Morrison Hellfighters and The XYZ Affair, 5/3/08 at The Black Cat, Washington, DC

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Saturday night at the Black Cat, Jukebox The Ghost made a triumphant return to their hometown of Washington, DC. The gig marked the first time that the trio, who formed while they were students at George Washington University, has performed in the nation's capital since the April 22 release of their excellent full-length debut CD, Let Live and Let Ghosts.

Jukebox The Ghost is led by pianist Ben Thornewill, whose classical training serves as the musical backdrop for his clever wordplay. Guitarist Tommy Siegel compliments Thornewill's piano perfectly, either with chords or a counter-melody.  He also contributes his fair share of the songwriting, including the three-song "End Of The World Suite" that closes the album. While the lack of a bass player is unique for a rock band, drummer Jesse Kristin more than compensates with his inventive rhythms.

But lest the talk of classical piano and song cycles give you night sweats of Tarkus or Rick Wakeman's gold lamé cape, Jukebox The Ghost are hardly retro prog heads. They are more in line with Ben Folds Five in the way they incorporate the piano in an uptempo alt-rock context rather than trying to write symphonies with a heavy backbeat. They also use their considerable chops to suit the song, working with space in a way that is more in line with mid-period Police than Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

And while they may deal with heady topics like the apocalypse, they don't take them so seriously that Siegel can't brush off Judgement Day by singing, "It's the end of the world/La da di da/I'm innocent/Keep me out of this."

Their sense of humor was on full display Saturday, where, early in the set, Thornewill referenced a preview of the show in the newspaper that praised their music, but complained about their tendency towards overlong stage banter. To prove that they were wrong, Thornewill said, he was going to tell the crowd about it.

Thornewill also repeatedly mocks his virtuosity by mugging to the audience; faux-dramatic for the Wagnerian sturm und drang of "Where Are All The Scientists Now?" and faux-pretentious during "Under My Skin," where the music in the verse takes on the playfulness of a Mozart sonata before crashing into a Ventures-meets-Jerry-Lee-Lewis chorus.

Their set saw them play the entirety of the 12-song Let Live And Let Ghosts, as well as a new song that has yet to be recorded, and a cover of Rage Against The Machine's "Guerilla Radio." They also called Seth Kallen, their manager as well as a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, onstage for the final song of the main set, "Hold It In."

Opening for Jukebox The Ghost was Brooklyn's very impressive The XYZ Affair, who, like Jukebox The Ghost, were exceptionally talented and versatile musicians, adding intricate and deceptively sweet four-part harmonies to their pop-punk sound. Imagine if Weezer would sing on-key and you'll have an idea.

Second on the bill were Travis Morrison Hellfighters, the self-named five-man project of the former lead singer of D.C.'s beloved The Dismemberment Plan. Their set featured Morrison's trademark eclecticism, seamlessly moving from arty funk to searing punk and everything in between as Morrison danced around the stage.  The band also joined Jukebox The Ghost for a blistering encore of The Clash's "Spanish Bombs," after which Jukebox The Ghost finished off the night with a slamming version of their lead single, "Good Day." It was, indeed.

To hear more about Jukebox The Ghost, I recently interviewed them for my podcast, Wings For Wheels.

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About Dave Lifton