New York City Uke Festival
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 27, 2006
If you're a ukulele fan—and from the looks of things at Theater for the New City right now, there are plenty of you out there—then you don't need me to tell you about the New York City Uke Festival. But if, like me, you're not (I count myself as indifferent and unaware; I'm not against them), then what I will say to you is this: pass an hour or more at this singular confabulation of slightly eccentric musicians. You might be very surprised. I know I was: count me as one who, if not necessarily a fanatic, is certainly very much for ukuleles now.
The event that I got to partake of is an hour-long musical comedy called American Novelty, performed by an Austin, Texas band known as Shorty Long. Now American Novelty isn't exactly your traditional book musical, but it's enormously entertaining, often quite funny, and contains a delightfully infectious score. It's basically a series of anecdotes about made-up forgotten ukulele artists of America's past, each of which ends with the band recreating one of the supposed musician's signature songs (all of which are actually written by Pops Bayless, the leader of Shorty Long).
The songs are treasures, every one. They've got titles like "Hey, Mr. Hitler" (an American tough-guy's warning to the Fuhrer and the other Axis leaders as well), "You Gotta Go Down to Go Up" (a wry indictment of corporate culture; think about it), and "Coffee and Sinkers" (supposedly written in the Ajax Diner). My favorite was probably "First Hand Witness," a genuinely affecting blues about loneliness sung beautifully by "Just Plain Bob" Guz—a really sweet, sophisticated composition. They all are that, though, and by the time the band got to "Flaming Ukulele in the Sky" (which is hilarious and a toe-tapper), most of the audience members—fans, you see—were singing along, making glorious carefree music together with the folks onstage. A lovely experience, this.
You can read about Shorty Long on their website and hear some sample clips of their songs here. The band consists of Bayless, who leads, sings some vocals in a gnarled yet clear voice, and plays a couple of different ukuleles along with a banjo-uke; "Just Plain Bob," who strums ukes like nobody's business; Mysterious John, the narrator, who also sings and plays the kazoo; Mark Rubin on upright bass; and George Carver, who plays an instrument I've never seen before called a lap steel with rapt concentration. From these unusual components comes a most accomplished sound—I came in expecting Tiny Tim and left understanding that these very serious musicians can make seriously wonderful music.
This is indeed the best part of my job: the chance to have an experience I would never dream of having, and in the process opening my eyes to something new and unexpected. (It's also one of the best parts of being in New York: offbeat fare like the New York City Uke Festival can be uncovered in this metropolis every day of the year, more or less.) I highly recommend this particular outing if you have some time available during the next few days. You may find yourself singing along with "Flaming Ukulele" yourself before it's over with.