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Circus of Sound

With tubas, ukuleles, costumes and charades, Albany’s Lucky Jukebox Brigade are a Vaudevillian act for the Craigslist age

by Jeff Nania on May 30, 2012

“Said to the river, don’t wanna fight no more. Now the river’s gonna move on out. I said to my baby, don’t wanna lose you no more. Now the river’s gonna move on out.” This the Lucky Jukebox Brigade chanted as they processioned through the audience of the Vaudevillian masquerade at BSP Lounge in Kingston this past January. Lead vocalist Deanna DeLuke sang a haunting melody while the rest of the group walked, adorned in black sheets as if they were in mourning for something. What they seemed to be mourning was the end of the human race. “Said It to the River” seemed to be a wake-up call to humanity.

On the charge: The Lucky Jukebox Brigade. Photo by Julia Zave.

Later, the show included burlesque dance, magic, fire dancers, bullwhipping, music, costumes, and more. The experience was so good for the Albany band that they will host another variety-style carnival show at Red Square on June 23. Although the group can hold down a performance and take you on a ride all their own, there is something about the variety-show format that helps take the audience back in time to a place without Facebook or Gmail, when there was something more than the digital milieu that we face daily.

Whether it is DeLuke’s baritone ukulele at the center of their sound, or the powerful and versatile brass section, which switches from three trumpets to tuba, euphonium, trombone, and combinations thereof, the Brigade have so many things that give them a signature sound. There’s violist Gina Mauro, whose lines flow on top of the texture and somehow anchor the whole thing together. She also lent her artistic talents to the exterior package design of the band’s new album, Pretty Well Damned. The front cover features an upside-down umbrella, and the group made this fantastical design a reality at their recent CD release show at Valentine’s, with a blue drop cloth in the background and an actual upside-down umbrella floating above the group.

The album title Pretty Well Damned has a paradoxical quality to it. DeLuke says bassist Geppi Iaia “came up with that based on some of the story lines in the lyrics. Our music is generally upbeat and danceable, but the lyrics tend to be dark, so Pretty Well Damned sort of has a ‘We’re going down with the ship but going down dancing’ feel to it.”

DeLuke and Kristoph DiMaria (arguably the left and right brain of the brigade) both cite the group Beirut as one of their primary influences. “Seeing a singer with a ukulele and an orchestra right there with him helped me realize what I wanted in a band,” DeLuke says. Tubist, trumpeter and brass arranger Andy Burger asserts, “We all have very different tastes in music, but we all love Beirut.” Yet Lucky Jukebox Brigade are much more than a re-creation of a single influence. DiMaria cites the “drum music of West Africa” as a primary influence in what he does with the group, and Burger asserts that Verdi influenced his brass section writing on the tune “A Feather in Your Shadow.”

DiMaria is simultaneously an auxiliary member and a central figure in the group. His vocal work is reminiscent of show tunes, which is fitting because he has a solid background in theater, cultivated at Schenectady County Community College. In addition to his vocals and songwriting, he also plays keyboards and guitar and is generally surrounded by all manner of percussion instruments, which allow him to find just the right sounds to accompany any situation that may be happening musically or theatrically.

“You’re free, you’re free, you’re free, you’re free,” shout DiMaria and Deluke on the album version of “The Adventures of Captain Salty Claus and the Skintight Bandit.” At their live shows, you are just as likely to hear an entire roaring crowd shouting out the same part. This tune is more like a piece of comic opera than rock & roll. There’s a story, and the comedic baritone vocals of DiMaria carry the tune. The powerful brass section led by Burger on tuba begins the piece with a mini chorale that sets the mood. The brass is also especially strong on “A Feather in Your Shadow,” which includes an extended alto horn solo by Christ Weatherly. DiMaria takes center stage on keyboards and vocals on this tune. At the variety show in Kingston, he was dressed up as a ringleader and looked fit to whip lions. The venue had a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, which fit perfectly with the aesthetic of the group. It was a defining performance of this tune, and I inadvertently picture DiMaria as the ringmaster any time I hear this tune live or on their album.

Despite the variety of places the Lucky Jukebox Brigade have played, including Albany’s MOVE Music Festival and a number of variety shows, the band have reached a consensus that Albany’s Hudson River Coffeehouse is their favorite venue. It’s the cozy spot that gave them a shot in the first place, and that they feel most comfortable in. Weatherly put it nicely when he said, “It’s small and we’re large, but the energy there is unmatched. There’s nothing like being literally one foot away from a mob of people dancing.”

The group started as if by accident, or by fate, depending on how you see things. Iaia happened to be browsing Craigslist, and says he “was actually not looking to join a band but was looking for a replacement bassist for the band I was leaving.” He came across an ad that had been posted in a number of cities from a woman named Deanna DeLuke. He listened to some of the home recordings she had available, and something about them really hit him. DeLuke didn’t have her heart set on starting a group in any particular city, but rather had spent the previous year crisscrossing the country and leaving a trail of Craigslist ads with hopes that somebody would see them and contact her. So it is a bit ironic that after all but giving up on Albany, the call she had been waiting for wound up coming from that very town.

The road has already seen some bumps, as only three of the six original members remain in the group. But as pieces shifted, the picture became better developed, and with the release of their first real album (as opposed to the four-song EP they put out as a demo upon starting the band), they have developed a real sound.

The recording process was a bonding experience for the group that helped to solidify their concept and to crystallize their current location in their evolution. They are an orchestra complete with a string section, brass section, percussion section, and choir. They see themselves pushing past state lines in the next years, and DiMaria says, “Personally, I am going to march with the Brigade into the sea, sky, or space—whatever it takes!”

A Kickstarter campaign is also under way, which will help the group to pay for their first serious tour project. The group plan to hit 14 cities in 16 days, including Nashville, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago and spots in between. DeLuke says, “We’re doing everything ourselves. I’m our booking agent, so it’s a do-it-yourself style tour. We’re trying to hook up with local bands everywhere we go, so we’re discovering a lot of great music along the way.”

The new album itself is quite different from the live experience and offers stripped-down versions of the tunes, allowing for all the more excitement at live shows. Part of this concept was developed by producer Carl Blackwood of Warming Room Studios in Albany. Getting an eight-piece ensemble to not infringe upon each other and muddy up the sound can be a task. Iaia says, “With eight people in our band, countless instruments and over 70 minutes of music, it’s easy to sound over-the-top. Carl really helped us out in terms of making sure the album didn’t sound crowded, and part of that comes from being tasteful and part of that comes from Carl’s deep understanding of dynamics.”

“. . . Or Bust” starts with a lethargic bassline and carefree vocals similar to the Cold War Kids’ tune “Saint John,” but as soon as you recognize the groove and expect it to continue on, it picks up and makes its way to the catchy and repetitive chorus “Won’t you walk, won’t you walk, won’t you walk around with me?”

This repetition and ultrasimplification is one of the Brigade’s trade secrets. Many of the tunes feature rollicking “la, la, la’s,” “whoa, wh-oa’s,” and other choice syllabic sections paired with catchy melodies that allow even first-time listeners to jump right into the deep end. These serve as a kind of latching-on point for the enthusiastic crowd that shows up to Jukebox Brigade events. A handful of the tunes finish in the live setting with an a capella section, during which the group effectively blend in with the audience.

Overall, it’s hard to deny the blood-red, film-noir quality of the Lucky Jukebox Brigade, and their variety-show, step-right-up demeanor. They have a way of being uplifting, comical and dark all at once. Andy Warhol once said that if you put anything up on a pedestal, it is art. With the Lucky Jukebox Brigade, there is art, but also more: entertainment, theater, group therapy.