It’s a beautiful sunny October day. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. The birds are singing. I look at my clock and think, plenty of time. Then I look at my phone and it’s a different time. Oh daylight saving has kicked in. I’ll just double check the time Ukulele Death Squad kicks off tonight….this afternoon…at 2pm. No worries I have an hour and ten minutes…wait no I don’t. A swift dash into the city ensues. Turns out the doors are a little late opening while they sort out some tech issues on stage and there is some grumbling for some of the older punters stuck in the hot sun waiting to enter. ‘Well it was supposed to start at two, if they weren’t going to start at two, why would they say two, I mean…’.
Once inside everybody grabbed a seat and got settled in. Proceedings start with the local competition winner LA Stripped which was a guy in a leather jacket and ‘metal’ wig, a Uke and a rhythm box. He did his best to warm up the room attempting to coax people to stomp and holler and sing along to It’s A Long Way To The Top and Summer of 69 (I got my first real FOUR string…). Ukulele musics ascension of popularity of the last few years has seen Uke sales sky rocket and a legion of young people embrace the simplicity and affordability of the the instrument after it being reviled for decades. I mean, it’s not a guitar. It’s not a mandolin. It’s it’s own thing and had been delegated to musical weapon of choice for clowns and light entertainment acts. But recently people like former Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer and UK duo Gus & Fin (who became popular doing YouTube versions of songs by The Ramones, The Clash, Visage and Gary Numan) helped inspire people to pick up the shrunken string instrument and get their own YouTube things happening. Like any weird or discredited instrument, if utilised with style, humour and enthusiasm Uke’s can be bloody marvellous.
All the was from Fairbanks, Alaska – Ukulele Russ is up next and he is a great example of this. Surrounded by loop triggers, keyboards, vocoder, a bass uke, a great voice, excellent stage presence and exceptional talent on the regular uke, he bewitched and charmed everybody in the room. A combination of inventive covers, marrying War’s Low Rider to Richie Valens La Bamba, a great metal medley of Van Halen’s Jump, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger which morphed in Weird al Yankovic’s reworking of the second song It’s The Rye or The Kaiser and an hilarious reading of Cher’s Believe with great use of the vocoder. But he has a neat line of original songs too that are mostly very funny. Songs about doing your laundry (Pink Tank Top), demanding the end to one ply toilet paper (Need Me Some Two Ply) and how to survive a bear attack. He finishes up with a terrific versions of the Steve Miller Band classic Fly Like an Eagle and Jenny by Beck.
Formed under two years ago Ukulele Death Squad brought together members of The Timbers and Coconut Kids to form a high octane, blitzkrieg of ukulele fuelled rollicking fury. Somebody asked me what they were like and I replied they were a bit like Mumford and Sons without so much Hey Nonny Nonny. Three Uke virtuoso’s and a sax player steeled with the energy of a punk band and the musical chops of a gun folk band. They are exuberant, exciting, funny as, and forging a reputation that has them selling out shows all over the country and overseas as well and earlier this year staging their own festival (Ukulele Death Festival).
They arrive on stage in dress shirts, suspenders, and sunglasses like a gang or extras from Reservoir Dogs and crank into Going Down. Elder Hall is great venue the changing afternoon light that is streaming in through the majestic high windows, creates warm natural glows on different members as the show proceeds. There are a few acoustic quirks, but nothing too severe. Benjamin Roberts and Julian Ferguson both sing and strum the living bejesus out of their instruments. Eammon Burke on Bass uke is solid as a rock, laying down the grooves and singing up harmonies. Saxophone player Reuben Legge maybe the butt of many jokes about proper instruments (i.e. anything but a uke is inferior) but he is a kick-arse player and great to watch. Given they are still kind of new, various songs are already crowd favourite Paris On a Train and The Publican appear early in the set to wild responses. They make Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher their own, during which they are joined by four burlesque dancers to much whooping and hollering. Rue Royale is catchy as hell and is sure to be a staple of their set. Eammon Burke delivers an impressive solo a capella Moon Over The Lake while the others nip off stage and when they return they are joined by Ashley Rand for a brilliant version of Nick Cave & PJ Harvey’s Henry Lee. We are told that it is a taste of a special show in next years Fringe, which is tantalising.
The new single I’m Not Afraid is a killer (see the sensational video link below). The end of the set is a blur of splendid songs, more dancers, Eyes Like That, Do It and exultant ovations from the audience. The audience is a mixture of young ukulele people, hipsters and teenagers and quite a lot older people. There are kids and parents and it’s obvious their appeal is extremely broad.
They return for a blistering and extended version of the Dick Dale surf classic Misirlou (as seen in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction). It blinking fantastic and when Ben and Julian kiss at a crescendo the place goes bonkers.
There will be more shows later in the year.
Their new CD is out now.
If Womadelaide don’t sign them up they are crazy.
Get yourself Uke’d.
Live Review by Ian Bell