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!


  1. I enjoyed that write-up - really amusing! Thanks for sharing...... :D

  2. virgmck,,, The venu/ theater was 'Aweful' at best but I did manage to grab a folding chair with a clear view for Jake's workshop.
    What a wonderful, Awesome person he is... as well as talented.
    I thououghly enjoyed the workshop and the Awesome concert..
    Thanks for your thoughts, I've enjoyed reading them. ginny';'