The Incombustible Men,
Lou Ow
(Grassroots, 2003)

Who knew the ukulele could wail blues lines like this? Because, make no mistake, the ukulele sound is integral to the old-time flavour of this great CD.

Set broadly in the Memphis jug-band tradition of blues, hokum and early jazz, Lou Ow is the first release by a brand-new trio from Winnipeg, Canada, featuring Manitoba Hal Brolund on electric ukulele and vocals, as well as kazoo and both slide and picked guitars.

The tunes range in age from Sonny Cunha's rollicking 1909 charleston-style dance number, "Honolulu Hula Girl" -- which features some wicked fast uke strumming and a zippy kazoo solo -- to Brolund's own 2003 slow, bluesy love song, "Turn Out the Lights." Between those extremes we find Big Joe Primrose's 1928 dark classic, "St. James Infirmary," which opens the CD with a ringing ukulele blues intro, "Darktown Strutters Ball" (1917), Willie Dixon's 1963 Chicago blues classic, "Built For Comfort," and a nod in the direction of Mexico with "South of the Border," which I was surprised to learn was originally penned in 1939. In fact, if you exclude Brolund's two compositions from the calculations, the average date for the remaining eight songs works out to 1932. But there's no need to exclude his tunes, since their style dovetails seamlessly with everything else.

You may be wondering: "What in the heck is hokum?" The word refers to an up-tempo blues/jazz style that came to prominence among southern blues performers between the world wars and was known for its humorous sexual double-entendres. It's represented here by Bo Carter's 1931 ditty, "My Pencil Won't Write No More" -- a title which probably says it all.

This trio -- which includes Matt Moskalyk on electric guitar and drums and Wayne Posnick on upright bass and vocals -- brings both high energy and a well-developed sense of fun to their interpretations of this music. But there's also no doubting their love for these tunes, as well as their obvious abilities to deliver them the way they were meant to be heard. This album swings from start to finish, and there's not a throwaway song in the bunch.

You might think it's a shame that such a snappy little band is forced to produce and distribute this CD on its own hook, but perhaps it's only freedom from the constraints of a major label that allows it to exist at all. This is not mainstream music by a long shot.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to Brolund's grandfather, who set the aspiring young blues guitarist and singer-songwriter on this course with the gift of his vintage Martin soprano uke. "My grandfather gave me this ukulele with the condition I learn to play it," says Brolund on his website. "I did, and it changed my life. I taught myself to read music and began to learn the great old songs that I wasn't hearing on the radio or couldn't find on records."

This CD is the result. It's only one of seven Hal has produced in a near two decade career, but I think it's one of his best. So thanks, gramps.

- Rambles
written by John Bird
published 6 November 2004

[ visit the artist's website ]