Nearly eight years ago I goaded our old friend and fratre Herb to contribute to our short-lived music blog. I hadn’t thought about his first entry there in many moons . . . but I did last night. Here it is:
August 11, 2004So why did this spotlight on ukes resurface in my brain last night?
Get yourself a ukulele
My name is herb and this is my first blog. I can't type worth a shit, nor can I really write but I'll try this gig for a while at least. Please bear with me, as it were.
I've been learning to play the ukulele. I've got a nice little Lanakai concert size model that my wife gave me for Christmas. Not a handmade Koa wood beauty but definitely not a toy. The reason I bring up the ukulele, which means "jumping flea" in Hawai'ian, is not to be braggardly or pompous (never!) but because it has enhanced the experience of music for me in the same way that hearing "Jump" covered by Aztec Camera or "I Need Love" covered by Luka Bloom does. So far I've learned to play a few Dan Zanes songs (for my kid of course) and a few old standbys (Crazy Love, Blue Sky), but the real tunes that have given me the most fun are "Rudie Can't Fail" and "God Only Knows." As I'm sure that playing any number of tunes with an instrument (or collection of instruments) different than in the original one becomes closer to the true essence of the music in question. Not the words necessarily, but the song itself. The chords, the changes, the meter and yes, the words. So, a Clash tune played on a ukulele is excellent in its own way. You know it's The Clash but it can be used as a lullaby. Playing a Brian Wilson mega-layered masterpiece on a uke is also a treat, much like a grape – simplified and beautiful.
Paring a song down to the bare minimum is not always a good thing, however. I think that Dylan's "Isis" from Desire is one of the best pieces of art ever. It can't be pared down or covered though, unless of course you have a witch who can play the violin, a piano that you can bang on and a seriously stuffed-up nose all at the same time.
There's really no point to this rambling, as you might have guessed, except the non-musical may want to consider getting a simpleton's musical instrument to become musical with. I would recommend against an accordion (thought about it, looks WAY too hard) despite its freaky cool cache. I've got a mountain dulcimer that is cool looking on the wall but I didn't ever manage to really get into it. I've gone through the motions w/ piano, harmonica and guitar – none of which were easy enough to learn to the point of enjoyment before I got fed up.
The ukulele is a good bet. It's small, very affordable, and it has only four strings so it's much easier to play a great diversity of chords – F#m w/ a dim 7th? No problem. It's got indie-cred, street-cred and aloha-cred. I thought about learning the penny-whistle but the idea of hanging out in my backyard tooting on a tin whistle sounded annoying to my neighbors. The uke is relaxing to those around you and easy to play. Bruce Springsteen probably has a ukulele.
Because my night began with watching this guy kick some serious ass on ukulele. Jake Shimabukuro is a uke virtuoso, and he is amazing. His story, as he told it, is that he was just a Hawaiian kid who picked up the ukulele (pronounced oo-ka-lay-lay) because his mom had played it, got proficient, played in a few bands to some local success, then posted a YouTube video of himself playing a Beatles cover tune. 10,000,000 views later, he’s touring the world. That was six years ago, and here it is:
Bad-assed and ukulele don’t really fit, and in his thoroughly self-effacing banter Jake mentions that part of the reason for his touring success is that “solo touring ukulele player” sets the bar pretty low for people’s expectations. The dude is pretty daggone Gheorghey.
The originals he played featured an array of styles, from typical Hawaiian sounds to traditional Japanese music to bluegrass to rock and roll. The covers were outstanding; Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Adele, Journey, and yes, the rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that put him on the map.
There's even a forthcoming documentary:
Like Herb said, get yourself a ukulele. Short of that, if you get a chance to watch Jake Shimabukuro, don’t pass it by.
* * * * * *
Part Two of the evening was less revelatory but even more rocking. I walked a block and a half from the Virginia Arts Festival Building over to the Norva, where the Drive-By Truckers were just about to come onstage. A “short but great” set according to an old friend who’s a DBT’s superfan. This was the setlist:
I Do Believe
Puttin' People on the Moon
Where the Devil Don't Stay
Used to Be a Cop
Ronnie and Neil
72 (This Highway's Mean)
My Sweet Annette
Box of Spiders
Carl Perkins' Cadillac
Everybody Need Love
Girls Who Smoke
Hell No, I Ain't Happy
3 Dimes Down
Let There Be Rock
Shut Up and Get on the Plane
As always, my favorites were “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” and “Let There Be Rock.” There was a good deal of tribute to Levon Helm (because of Levon’s imminent passing) throughout the night. Mike Cooley has about the most appropriate surname in rock and roll, and Patterson was sweating to the oldies. Here's the DBT's first steps towards selling out -- meaning getting off the road 200 days a year in order to be with their kids. That's Cooley narrating.
I guess the boys had had a humdinger of a Patron night in Charlottesville the night prior, playing until 12:30, so they were a bit more subdued onstage last night. (And based on the C-ville setlist, the Jefferson Theater show was the crown jewel of this leg of the tour.) That said, the Truckers always bring it. Never seen anything less than a damn fine show. Check ‘em out.