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Two Butterflies

The preshow darkness of the Jefferson Theater in downtown Charlottesville always seems fecund, and the dim glow of the wall sconces does little to remove this feeling of potential hanging thick in the air. For Jukebox the Ghost’s show (with San Fermin) on September 30th, the atmosphere was no different. Lights at the foot of the stage bathed the curtains in red, and the proscenium was awash with the same seductive, burgundy glow. Expectations for the night promised catharsis: along with the unabashed bombast of San Fermin’s eight-person outfit, the audience would laugh (and scream); then they’d cry (maybe) to the intellectual introspection of the concert’s headliner.

For a double feature, it couldn’t get much better.

In Jia Tolentino’s coverage of San Fermin’s third album for The New Yorker, she likened their sound to a “wall of flowers blooming at once.” Lush and epic, their performance Saturday night at the Jefferson did nothing to refute Tolentino’s claim. Despite the already grand sound of the ensemble, most members play at least two instruments and often double throughout songs. Stevie Chen, the band’s outstanding baritone saxophonist, will finger over the keys of his primary instrument with one hand while playing a drum with the other. Their keyboardist has this same percussive ambidextrousness, as does one of their singers Allen Tate, who carried a maraca for most of the set. Altogether, their sound is massively expressive, dynamic, and full.

They used most of the night to promote their most recent album, Belong (perhaps the most fully realized of Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s arrangements thus far) and showed off “Better Company” and lead single “Belong” with particular gusto. But in their final adieu before Jukebox the Ghost took the stage, San Fermin chose to grab an old hit of theirs off the shelf, “Jackrabbit” from the 2015 album of the same name.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be in the presence of—to borrow Tolentino’s metaphor—a wall of flowers blooming at once. The explosion of color and sound, especially after Kaye’s sparsely accompanied opening verse (Run for the hills/Run for the hills/Run), comes close to ripping one’s breath away. In a groundswell of brass, Chen’s saxophone bellows, and San Fermin’s trumpet player John Brandon cuts in with a literal fanfare. The walls shake and the floor vibrates. (For most of San Fermin’s set, I wasn’t entirely sure what drummer Michael Hanf was doing, but I swear to god he had more than just a percussion set there. Chimes? A goddamn triangle?!) In person, this effect—what I’d call a sonic ecology of harmony, rhythm, and texture—was almost overwhelming. The crowd at the Jefferson would have agreed with me; they, too, were swept up in the organism that was the “Jackrabbit.” At one point, so did Brandon, who jumped down into the audience and began marching through the crowd like the Pied Piper, frenzied fans dancing in his wake. Once Kaye belts her last “run for the hills,” peace signs and shaking hands shoot upwards.

It was strange to consider that another band had to come and follow San Fermin, that they were just an aperitif for the night to come, and it became even stranger when Jukebox the Ghost finally did take the stage. Compared to the wild fashion of San Fermin—Chen’s all black get-up, Kaye’s torn stockings, Brandon’s half-suit—the men of Jukebox the Ghost looked almost too simple in their loose t-shirts and tight denim pants. Yet there was something appealing about this simplicity, an evident self-assurance. Ben Thornewill, Jukebox the Ghost’s piano wizard, walked onto the stage carrying his MacBook with both hands and joked to the audience that their sound check would be awhile, “We were supposed to do this [sound check] this morning, but we wanted breakfast—you can’t say no the Waffle House.” When he next spoke into the mic, it was to shout, “what’s up, folks” in a lazy, confident drawl. His hands had already started moving over the keys and were playing the starting chords to “Stay the Night.”

Two out of the three members of Jukebox the Ghost are always seated, Thornewill over his piano and Jess Kristin over his red, bedazzled drum set, but the energy they radiate during shows is just as intense as that of San Fermin. Kristin will shake a maraca with glee as he madly kicks the bass drum. As Tommy Siegel roves the stage with his guitar, Thornewill will stomp his boots and gesture half-hearts and “#1’s” to the audience. At the end of “At Last” Kristin even threw his tambourine in the air; it almost hit the rafters. Their set was, as has come to be expected of Jukebox the Ghost, professional, poppy, and smart, with Thornewill even admitting before a piano-heavy rendition of “Long Way Home” to stealing from Chopin but keying it up because the original is “too maudlin.” Stars from their set included fan favorites like “Schizophrenia,” “Good Day,” “Victoria,” and “Hollywood” as well as newer songs like “Girl” and a bluesy version of “Keys in the Car.” Jukebox the Ghost even debuted a song off their upcoming album titled “Boring,” whose lyrics reflected the changing landscapes of their lives and attitudes as they become veteran rock-stars: “Children laugh behind my back, they’re getting younger every time/Friends are having kids, guess they’ll procreate ‘til they die/Everything is boring, everything is bland.” And, of course, everyone in attendance howled to their infectious hit “Somebody.” In their encore performance, with October just a day away, Thornewill announced the annual “Halloqueen,” and the audience was treated to “We Are the Champions” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The pairing of their shows seemed too good to be true. Each ended too soon. Everyone left the Jefferson sure that the potential of that darkness had indeed been seized.
San Fermin travels down to Richmond for a show with Gracie and Rachel while Jukebox the Ghost heads to California for a show in San Francisco. One gets the sense from watching that show, with its very different sounds and looks, that something special happened in the Jefferson that night, like the paths of two butterflies crossing—each one beautiful in its own right, but something magnificent and majestic about their being there together.

Editor’s Pick: Originally published Oct. 12.
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David Willis is a second-year who collects both jukeboxes and Ghost Rider memorabilia.