Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Denver Uke Fest: Part 3


The Big Event at the Denver Uke Fest is the concert, and rightly so. They managed to get some big names to perform, and they did an amazing job.

The opening act was the Denver Uke Community playing "Yellow Submarine," replete with a yellow submarine that swam back and forth during the performance. Alas, my video didn't come out so well, but it was fun and got everyone in the mood.

After they left the stage I started to hear music, but couldn't tell where it was coming from. It turns out they decided to put the in-between acts off to the right and behind where I was sitting. I could tell a lot of people were confused at first, and a few seemed annoyed that they couldn't comfortably see, but it worked out well as it allowed artists to get set up on the stage without being a spectacle.

Chris McGarry was the first opener, accompanied by Danielle Anderson of Danielle Ate the Sandwich.


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Next up was Tina and Her Pony, one of the headlining acts. I had never heard of this bluegrass duo before, but I was floored. Tina Collins and Quetzal Jordan (what a cool name) played quite a variety of songs. I heard a few people complaining that the uke was more of an afterthought, but I disagree. They played amazing music, some of which happened to be without a uke, but their pairing of the ukulele and cello was awesome.

During one portion of their performance, Tina unexpectedly ran off the stage, and Quetzal filled the time by bowing some Bach on her cello. It was obvious she'd had a lot of classical music training. I've also never seen someone strum a cello before, but it sounded amazing.

The duo are from Taos, New Mexico (near my old stomping grounds of Santa Fe), and I fell in love with their music. They had an amazing chemistry together and seemed very comfortable on stage. Total professionals.

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Victory & Penny were up next, performing what they call "Antique Pop." They were certainly dressed the part. This is one of the great things about the ukulele—that we can watch an act like Tina and Her Pony and go straight to this duo, and the instrument just seems a natural part of it. Victor & Penny consists of Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane, although they were accompanied by Aaron Keim on the upright bass. I wonder how many of these pairings took place impromptu before the show?

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Next up were Aldrine Guerrero and Aaron Nakamura. I was familiar with Aldrine through his clips on Ukulele Underground, but I had no idea what to expect in terms of stage performance. I realize this may be sacrilege to say, but I believe that Aldrine and Jake are neck and neck as uke performers. Jake is the Master of Emotion, but Aldrine is the King of Energy. I don't know what it is about these unassuming Hawaiian guys who do everything in a laid-back lazy fashion, and then when it comes to music they go absolutely crazy. Aldrine was moving his hand so fast that it was literally a blur. I immediately dubbed him Aldrine "Jell-O Wrist" Guerrero, and I still don't know how he did it.

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Aldrine brings singing to the table where Jake apparently isn't so blessed, but I think everyone was a bit taken aback when Aaron sang for us, as it turns out he has quite a voice on him as well. Another nice, quiet guy who totally rocks on stage. My guess is these guys look tired because they're constantly fighting off Hawaiian wahines.

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At one point Aldrine brought a friend up on stage to perform a hula while they played a song they had just learned that morning. They all did an amazing job. Damn, the hula is sexy.

Needless to say, by this time I was having a blast. Aldrine can pump up any crowd, and he managed to get several standing ovations (a faux pas among the classical set, but SCREW 'EM, we're uke players, dammit, and we get excited!).

Danielle Ate the Sandwich had a few minutes to wow us, and she was obviously full of energy herself.

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Next up was The Hapa Hillbillies. These guys played some great bluegrass and folk with a bit of swing. The oboe was particularly nice, really adding to their sound.

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Char Mayer from Mya Moe joined them for a song at one point, with a little steel lap guitar action to give it a real Hawaiian feel.

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The next tweener was Faceman. He's apparently well known in the Denver community, but I wasn't sure who he was or why he was there, since he was playing a guitar. No matter, he surrounded himself with The Quiet Americans and a few other performers and had us all singing along to a gospel song.

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"Don't be afraid; go be that man that you are in your sleep." What a great message.

Next up was the last headliner of the night, Nellie McKay. Nellie was another of the artists that spent much of her time not playing the ukulele, but she was such a great performer that it didn't matter (to me, anyway).

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Watching bits and pieces of Nellie McKay can't begin to explain what she is as a performer—somewhere between a comedy act and a musical show. A number of her songs had a political bent to them, and she's got a bit of a bite beneath her wallflower exterior.

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Her ukulele skills were good, but it was obvious that it wasn't the first tool in her repertoire.

The Grand Finale was grand indeed. All of the performers came out on the stage and performed a couple of songs, with a little choreography thrown in and lots of audience participation (no ukes, thank goodness). It was truly a bawdy spectacle. Danielle's got some gams on her!

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Well, folks, that concludes my coverage of the Denver Uke Fest. I hope I was able to give at least somewhat of a feel for the events, and next year maybe I'll take an actual camera with me. Have fun, and Happy Ukeing!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Denver Uke Fest: Part 2


Day two of the Denver Ukulele Festival started bright and early at the L2 Culture and Events Center in Denver. A beautiful old building that had been carefully maintained and updated, it was quite a contrast to the previous night's venue.

The weather for the morning was cold and rainy, so I was happy when I finally made it to the center. It turns out an Aloha shirt isn't nearly as festive if you're dripping wet. Once I walked in I was immediately treated to the sight of ukuleles everywhere! Oceana Ukuleles had a booth set up right next to the door and had some beautiful ukes to show. Across from them was Denver Folklore Center's collection of ukes, most of them from Kala and Fluke. I dutifully examined them all and made my way over to the table I was really looking for, manned by Music Guy Mic. If you don't know him, Mike Aratani is a staple in the online uke community. He was one of the top eBay uke sellers until a nasty illness forced him into the hospital and out of business. He seems to be greatly recovered and is now working for Hawaii Music Supply.

I immediately trotted myself over to Mike and informed him how great it was to see him and how important he is to the uke community. He looked positively frightened. My limited experience with Hawaiians is that they tend to be pretty reserved, and I think the Colorado attitude of "every stranger is a best friend you haven't met yet" might be a bit off-putting. No matter, I managed to score yet another blurry picture of another uke celebrity, and then it was time to drool over the ukes.

Music Guy Mic (Mike Aratani). He's truly a giant in the uke community. No, really, that's a tenor he's holding.
He's massive.
Mike brought with him a selection of ukes from actual Hawaiian builders. I finally got a chance to do some side-by-side comparisons with Kanilea, Koaloha, and Kamaka. They all sounded great, but the Koaloha can't be beat for volume, and the Kanilea can't be beat for looks. If you want simple class, Kamaka's the ticket. But here I am comparing the various models as if I could come close to affording any of them. I might as well be a hobo discussing the merits of a '78 Montrachet versus a '45 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

Mike's fantastic selection of ukes included these beauties from Kanilea. When I noticed that the fret markers were inlaid Hawaiian beach sand, I contemplated the distance to the door, but my stupid conscience got the better of me. That, and I wasn't wearing my special uke-thefting sneakers.
At the next table was Mya Moe Ukuleles, with Char and Gordon Mayer answering questions and pitching their wares. Aaron Keim was on hand to explain for the thousandth time how he managed to get a black eye (something about his wife being lactose intolerant and tennis balls...I don't know, I was looking at the ukes).

Gordon Mayer and Aaron Keim show off their Mya Moe ukes and assorted battle injuries.
Either May Moe worked out a deal with the artists or these are the best ukes ever, because almost every artist that wasn't performing with a signature model was using a Mya Moe. My guess is the artist that gets his or her own Mya Moe signature uke will rule the world—a "one uke to rule them all" sort of thing.

At the table next to Mya Moe I'm greeted by an extremely friendly Aaron Nakamura from Ukulele Underground. He tells me I look familiar, and I tell him he looks familiar. (Well of course he looks familiar. Good job, brain.) Aaron was being polite, as I'm about as famous as...well, someone you've never heard of, because they're not famous. Wow, I suck at analogies. Oh wait, that's good—I'm as bad at analogies as I am at being famous.

Aaron was accompanied by his trusty sidekick, Aldrine. Aldrine and I go way back to the night before, when I took the world's worst picture with him. I tried my luck again and scored yet another blurry picture. I'm starting to wonder whether I don't have some sort of nerve condition. I stammer a few words to Aldrine about Ukulele Underground and how awesome he is, see the same look that I elicited from Music Guy Mic not more than a few minutes before, and think maybe I should stop talking to people today. In case you're reading this, Aldrine, I promise at the next uke fest to just give a simple nod of the head from a respectable distance, so please come back for "UkeFest 6: The Ukening."

Aldrine Blurrero, wardrobe assistant to the exceptional Aaron Nakamura
My first workshop was about to start, so I headed into the auditorium and grabbed a seat (yay! upholstery!). I was attending the "Swing and Ukes and You" session with Larry Wyatt from Hapa Hillbillies. Unfortunately, there weren't enough handouts to go around, but I muddled my way through and still learned all kinds of cool things. Well, learned may be the wrong word, because when I got home I tried them and realized that the awesome sound I was hearing during the session was apparently everyone else in the auditorium, because I still suck at playing the ukulele. No matter, it's all about having fun (if I keep saying that, eventually I'll believe it).

That session ended, and the next one started a few minutes later. "Hard Uke Rhythms Made Easy" with Aldrine! As soon as Aldrine took to the stage I walked up to him, threw up on his shirt, and stepped on his ukulele. At least, that's what I anticipated happening, so I acted nonchalant and waited to learn how these hard uke rhythms were going to get any easier. It turns out Aldrine is an excellent teacher, and I got some great tips out of it. I suppose I could tell you all what I learned, but first I'd have to remember it. Nice job, brain, you're really helping me out this weekend.

INTERMISSION—Chipotle for lunch! Folks, I happen to be one of those people who has the genetic makeup that means that, to me, cilantro tastes like slug vomit. If you've ever been to a Chipotle, you know that their menu consists of "cilantro mixed with a few other things." My brain was apparently trying to prove to me just how bad I can be at making decisions.

The next workshop was "Six-Two-Five-What?" with Ronnie Otiveros, also of the Hapa Hillbillies. It turns out I remember a lot of this session. Unfortunately, I don't really understand any of it. Apparently chords are also numbers, and if you're bad at math, you can suck at chords too. There's a reason why this blog is called "Ukulele Newbie" and not "Awesome Frickin' Ukulele Player, Bitches." I guess I still have a bit more learning to do.

The next session with Aaron Keim, "Breaking Out of the Strumming Rut," was awesome. I actually remember a lot of it, and Aaron was a great teacher. He showed how you can play all kinds of different strums to keep things interesting next time you're at your local uke jam session playing "Yellow Submarine" for the 100th time.

At this point my eyes were starting to glaze over, and unfortunately my wrists were complaining. My doctor diagnosed me with carpal tunnel syndrome a few weeks ago (the joys of being a computer tech), but I figured some acetaminophen would get me through the festivities (I'd be damned if I wasn't going to play!). I was holding up pretty well until the final session: "Finger Pickin' with Nellie McKay."

At the beginning part of this session, Nellie made the mistake of sitting next to me and asking if she could tune off my uke. Oh God, here's the part where I accidentally set her on fire. It's a shame, she seems nice.

[I just thought of a joke. Q: What's orange and looks good on a ukulele player? A: Fire.]

My brain, apparently still suffering remorse from its lunch decision, opted to behave, and I politely offered her my uke tuner instead. We exchanged a few civil words, I didn't accidentally put my foot on her dress and disrobe her as she got up, and she tuned her vintage Gibson in time to show us all how we couldn't fingerpick worth a crap. Apparently around pretty, sophisticated girls I can actually be normal. It's possible I may be wired entirely backwards. This might explain how I can blow air out of my eyes (a great trick in the pool, not so much on a date).

Well, it looks like I've wasted another few pages telling you next to nothing about the uke fest, and I haven't even gotten to the concert yet. I promise that the concert coverage will be informative, and I can promise video clips for most of the artists! Yay! Stay tuned, dear reader, and I also promise there are no more blurry celebrity photos.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Denver Uke Fest: Part 1


I attended the 5th annual Denver Ukulele Festival this last weekend, and thought it would be fun to do a writeup. It was my first ukulele event, and I was in for a real treat.

The event was organized by Swallow Hill Music, and overall they did a fantastic job. It ended up being the second largest ukulele event in the world after London (we're coming for you, chaps!).

The Oriental Theater. It's in need of a little TLC. Or a wrecking ball. 
The festivities kicked off on Friday afternoon with a workshop with the venerable Jake Shimabukuro. I got there an hour and a half early to get a good seat and was fairly close to the front of the line (which soon wrapped around the block).

I met some great people who came from far-away places. I ended up standing next to Sukie, from Ukulele Underground. She had flown in from Minnesota and brought her custom-made Chuck Moore ukulele, a true work of art replete with flamingos. I forgot to ask the significance.

"Sukie" shows off her Chuck Moore ukulele. I'd only been there for 30 minutes, and I already had serious uke envy.
The energy level of the crowd was high, with lots of banter and merriment. Doug Brown of the Denver Uke Community apparently took a break from his meth addiction recovery meetings to work the crowd and spread some of his energy around.

Doug Brown of the Denver Uke Community. His personality came with a matching hat.
Eventually they started letting people inside, and I managed to score a great seat. After a short time, Jake Shimabukuro came out, and the girls swooned (as did some of the guys). The workshop itself was very unstructured, with Jake talking a bit about his background and how he composes music. He played bits of songs for us and answered a lot of questions, but the event ended after an hour or so to give Jake time to recover for his concert that evening.

I was so close I could smell his fame. It smells a little like almonds.
After the workshop we all wandered off to keep ourselves occupied for the next few hours. The Oriental Theater is surrounded by art galleries, restaurants, and antique stores. I found one store filled with antique toys that I'll have to make my way back to when I'm not lugging around an ukulele.

After a spot of BBQ at a restaurant called "Big Hoss" (where the flirty waitress inquired whether my Aloha shirt was vintage and then studied it intently every time she returned to my table), I headed back to get in line early for the Big Show—this turned out to be a brilliant move, but barely so. See, two days before the concert, Swallow Hill sent out an email "clarifying" that the venue, for which they sold around 700 tickets, would have seating for 150. They later managed to add another 100 seats or so using folding chairs. The people with those seats were the lucky ones.

Let me tell you a bit about the Oriental Theater. The Oriental was built in the 1930s entirely using slave labor from the local Chinese immigrant community, many of whom had come to Colorado in the fresh days of the railroad. At least 200 Chinese people died during the building of the theater, some of which are reputed to haunt the building to this day. The "Oriental Curse" has plagued the theater since, and most artists who perform there never return.

At least, that's what I imagine. There's actually no info on The Oriental Theater website about its origins, but it was obviously built with great care sometime around the '30s—you can tell because it hasn't been cared for or cleaned since then, and you can still see bits and pieces of the amazing craftsmanship that once went into it clinging on for dear life. Remember the folding chairs I mentioned earlier? They were the most comfortable seating in the theater. The seats in the balcony had what appeared to be their original upholstery. Well, some of them did. Others were simply bare springs with a bit of crumbling, scary-looking, sure-to-be-full-of-toxic-chemicals-because-no-one-cared-back-then foam. And, because of a dearth of seating, people were practically fighting for the seats. Unfortunately, the first 50 people who got into the theater promptly "reserved" seats for others, so even though I was close to the front, I had to make a mad dash up into the balcony to get a seat. I managed to find one of the few that could be sat in that didn't have spotlights blocking my view.

I got to meet many very nice people, most of whom scrambled to get the open seat next to me, only to leave when they realized that their view was blocked and the seat was likely to give them tetanus-infected bedbugs. Eventually the two open seats were taken over by a nice couple, who ended up sitting on drink trays they requested to make the seats more comfortable—no fooling.

This was one of the better upholstered seats in the theater. The one immediately next to it was so trashed that it had been taped off as if it were a crime scene. The tape was quickly removed by hopeful sitters who consistently abandoned the seat when they realized they'd be better off getting pummeled in the uke mosh pit below. 
Eventually people either found seats or gave up and went downstairs to stand in front of the stage, consoled by the fact that they'd at least possibly be able to get some Jake-sweat splashed on them in the heat of the concert.

My precious seat, with a view of the stage between the spotlights that thwarted most of the other patrons. 
The opening act was The Quiet American, featuring Aaron Keim on ukulele; his multi-talented wife Nicole on washboard, vocals, and harmonium; and Neil McCormick on upright bass. I wasn't very familiar with Aaron's work, but I was very impressed and ended up buying a CD. His music has a nice bluegrass-folksy feel that lends itself really well to the ukulele.

After a few songs from Aaron and his cohorts, the "real" show started with JAKE! OMG JAKE JAKE JAKE JAKE JAKE JAKE

Well, that pretty much sums it up. In all seriousness, Jake was as amazing as everyone touts him to be. I believe I'm the first person to make this comparison, but I don't believe I'll be the last: Jake is the Elvis of the ukulele. Seriously, this guy rolled a 20 on Charisma. Not only is he an incredibly talented player, but he's a wonderful showman, full of energy and emotion. Plus, he's hot. My wife can attest that I'm straight, but I think we'd both be happy to double date him. That's what a 20 will do.

I think the thing that sets Jake apart is that he is so thoughtful about what he's doing. He takes time before each song, and you can see him getting into the mood and feeling of what he's about to play. He was really enjoyable to watch. Well, when I could watch him, that is. Through a fair amount of the show, the spotlights that were behind Jake were lovingly and professionally aimed directly into the eyes of everyone in the balcony, as if to mock them for managing to find seats with an unobstructed view. And not just any lights, oh no, these are those new lights that are apparently made up out of lasers. I'm fairly certain that the disconcerting smoke that kept filling the auditorium was coming off of my eyeballs.
This was my view of Jake for much of the concert. No Photoshop foolery, it was actually brighter than this. To get an idea of what it was like, go outside and stare into the sun, and then pour grain alcohol in your eyes and set them on fire.
Eventually the concert ended. Everyone was smiling and excited, and we all congratulated each other on having made it through the concert without having suffered some injury or having the roof collapse on us (which I found out the next day had actually almost happened to one performer a year before).

Despite those setbacks, I had a wonderful time. I actually bumped into Aldrine Guerrero before the show started and had my picture taken with him. Unfortunately it turned out to be possibly the worst photo ever taken with Aldrine.

The picture isn't blurry—that's actually the fog of AWESOMENESS. Notice the double shaka.
After the show, I got into the "sign line" and waited to have Jake Shimabukuro sign my copy of his Peace, Love, Ukulele songbook. Jake looked worn out after the show, but he was genuinely polite and engaged, touching me on the shoulder and thanking me for coming. I managed to get a picture taken with Jake, this one slightly less blurry than the last one. Apparently my phone hates me and wants me to be sad, but my phone can go screw itself because I got Jake's autograph! You know, like everyone that Jake has ever met. Someday it'll be worth a nickel.

Jake flashes the "shaka," a Hawaiian hand gesture that's intended to protect the gesturer from the evil spirits that make haoles uncool. As a side effect, it frequently makes photos out of focus.
So, that was the first day of the Denver Uke Fest. There's more stories to come, but I'm still worn out from the weekend's festivities, so you'll have to stay tuned!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dealing With Excess Humidity

I've talked at length about keeping your uke humidified if you live in a dry environment, but what if you live in a really humid environment—or even worse, one where the humidity fluctuates dramatically between wet and not so wet?

Zorb-It is a product which excels at absorbing moisture. Just put a packet in your uke case and it'll make sure that the humidity stays at a fairly constant level. Not only are they inexpensive, but they never need replacing—my favorite kind of thing!

Go check out their website for more information or to order.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

To Curl or Not To Curl?

Any ukulele not made from koa is crap.

OK, maybe that's overstating things just a wee bit. But from the standpoint of the high-end ukulele market, if your uke isn't koa, it may as well be made out of popsicle sticks. And not just any popsicle sticks, but those really rough ones that leave splinters in your mouth and taste like Chinese sadness.

The koa tree is a member of the acacia family, and while acacia grows all over the world, true koa only grows in Hawai'i. It's prized for many of its acoustic qualities—good resonance with a warm, sometimes even bright, sound. It's also the traditional wood for making ukes because, well, that's pretty much all they had in Hawai'i back in the day. Koa is now considered endangered, and its price has risen accordingly.

But koa isn't always koa. See, there's koa...and then there's koa.

This is koa. I think. Who can tell?
But this...this is koa.
Please take my money and/or left nut in exchange for it.

The difference between the koa in the Oscar Schmidt ukulele vs. the DeVine ukulele is what's called curl. The curlier the koa, the more beautiful the figuring, and the more expensive the resulting ukulele. Curl is a result of some sort of stress on the tree, such as growing at an extreme angle (like on a steep hillside). It causes the fibers to grow very close together, and gives the wood a three dimensional visual quality (just the angle difference between one eye and the other means some areas look light to one eye and dark to the other—photos truly can't do it justice).

OK, so now that we've established that suffering trees produce beautiful wood, is it worth spending the extra bucks to get yourself a karmically questionable koa ukulele? Not necessarily. Because the same factors that cause the wood to look the way it does also affect the sound, and most luthiers agree that curlier woods often don't sound as good as less figured ones. Of course woods are all so unique that this isn't a hard and fast rule, but it's certainly a good guideline. As always, you should ideally play a uke before you buy it.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Oscar Schmidt laminated koa uke above is about $130. The DeVine custom is about $5,000, although the koa probably only makes up $800 of that cost. The rest of the cost? Well, that's the price for AWESOMENESS. It ain't cheap.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What the Pros Play: James Hill

James Hill is certainly one of the more respected of the younger ukulele set. Canada's foremost ukulele player, James Hill is well known for his technical expertise playing jazz, bluegrass, and folk—but his ability as a songwriter is something that helps to set him apart.

Pinning down what styles he plays is almost as difficult as pinning down what instrument he plays. James has apparently been bitten by the U.A.S. bug (that's Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome, a common disease among uke players). He's played instruments by Mya Moe, G-String, Ko'olau Ukulele & Guitar Co., Kamaka Ukulele, KoAloha Ukulele, Talsma String Instruments, and Tony Graziano Ukuleles. At one point James had a signature model on offer from Mike DaSilva, a boutique ukulele luthier. It's no longer listed on the DaSilva site, but you occasionally see them come up for sale.

What is probably more definitive for James's sound is his tuning. This comes from James's website:

 I grew up playing in D6 tuning (a, d, f#, b) with a low A string like all students of the Doane ukulele method. It wasn't until my late-teens that I started to fool around with other tunings. Nowadays I travel with four ukes: one with a high 4th string and another with a low 4th string, the Beltona slide which I tune either a, d, g, b or g, c, f, a depending on the song, and the beansprout banjo which I always have in high 4th tuning.
Here's a great clip of James playing Hand Over My Heart, one of his own compositions. Very Canadian!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Jake's New Book

Jake Shimabukuro has released his first book, Peace Love Ukulele. It's a note-by-note transcription of his album of the same name, plus it includes the music for While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Bohemian Rhapsody.

The book itself is very well done, including the sheet music along with the tab. I would say it's for intermediate to expert players, but even beginners can get some things out of it. Jake himself apparently transcribed it, so it's about as accurate as you're going to get.