Ukulele Expo
at Pocmont Resort,
Bushkill, PA
(17-19 September 2004)

Outside of Hawaii, the ukulele is considered a sweetly eccentric, even an anachronistic musical instrument -- if, indeed, it is considered at all and not just dismissed as a bit of tourist fluff. The fact is, in today's noisy, aggressive world, the uke IS sweetly eccentric and anachronistic -- and delightfully so. So are the people who play it, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Ukulele players do tend to be a lonely bunch, though. They have to work hard to find other players with whom to share enthusiasms -- again I speak specifically of those of us in the uke diaspora, outside of Hawaii and the South Pacific.

All of which is preamble to a review of September's Ukulele Expo, held at a resort in the Pocono Hills near Bushkill, Pa., under the auspices of the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. My point is that when ukulele players do get together, look out -- they're hungry.

About 200 ukesters braved hurricane-aftermath flooding to gather in the Pocmont Resort for two-and-a-half busy days of concerts, workshops, open mikes, shopping and jamming in hallways and suites until the wee smalls. The excitement and anticipation were electric, and the weekend was such a whirlwind of activity, from 9 a.m to 3 a.m., that it all seems a blur now, a beautiful dream that ended far too quickly. I'm just going to touch on the highlights, but even those seem too many to recount.

Friday night was the warm-up concert, and the highlight for me was Ukulele Lloyd, a solo artist with orange hair, an amped up little Flea ukulele (Google it, they're plastic and goofy looking, but surprisingly good players) and a punk 'tude. Very entertaining, and one of several acts to get political in a left-leaning kind of way with his song about King George II ("the sun shines out of your behind"). Songs from a Random House and the Bag End Boys both showed the ukulele could hold its own in the sensitive soft-rock and singer-songwriter genres, respectively.

The Saturday night concert was the humdinger. Every act was a highlight:

• Ralph Shaw, a transplanted Englishman now living in Vancouver, sang and played his way through a medley of hits by George Formby, a hugely popular British comic actor, singer and banjo-uke player during the 1930s and '40s. Ralph both recreated George and was visibly moved by Formby's induction that evening into the Hall of Fame.

• The Klesk Brothers, two husky, corn-fed, fair-haired, midwestern boys offered their eerily beautiful recreations of traditional island singing (in Hawaiian, no less) with pure harmonies and emotional depth enough to make me misty-eyed. There were moments I could have sworn I was listening to the sweet tenor voice of the late, great Braddah Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

• Lil Rev treated us to his early blues, hokum and Americana uke stylings, singing and storytelling around numbers like Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales & They're Red Hot."

• Amazing solo ukulele virtuoso James Hill, a young Canadian reputed to be one of the best players in the world, burned it up in a repertoire ranging from "Flight of the Bumblebee" to "Summertime" and theme music from a Super Mario Brothers video game.

• The Moonlighters gave us beautifully realized Hawaiian steel-guitar and ukulele swing (think "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime"), with the lovely blended voices of female crooners Bliss Blood and Carla Murray.

• The high-energy rhythm uking of Pops Bayless anchored the hugely entertaining Texas novelty-jazz band, Shorty Long ("California Here I Come," "Coffee & Sinkers"), with blazing tenor guitar and clarinet/soprano sax solos added by two members of Uke Jackson's Radio Aces band.

The truth is, every one of these performers had the chops to be a headlining act. But here they were, all gathered together to play their hearts out for a couple hundred people in one of the best concerts I've experienced. But that's the story of the ukulele -- no respect in the mainstream music world, and to top it off, ukulele lovers seem to court marginalization by going for the forgotten, anachronistic (that word again) musical genres, especially trad jazz and Hawaiiana from the uke's heyday. It's beautiful music, but its days of drawing the big crowds have long passed. Maybe that's sad in some ways, but for those of us at the Uke Expo -- the faithful remnant -- that's the beauty of it, too.

During the daytime workshops, we all got to take lessons from these same players who so mightily entertained us at the concerts. I was shown tricks and tips it will take me till next expo and beyond to integrate into my playing and, frankly, it's amazing just to have such close access to your musical heroes. The highlight here for me, was Fred Fallin, a delightful ukulele player, historian, raconteur, bon-vivant and man about town from Chicago, who held his workshop participants enthralled for 90 minutes with his depth of knowledge and obvious love of all things ukulele. That workshop alone was worth the price of admission.

But the best part of the whole event was the after-hours jamming, in halls, suites, the hotel bar and even on the concert stage. It seemed there wasn't a soul there who wasn't happy to see you, happy to share a song, trade ukes for a couple of numbers, show you new chord positions. Highlights included trying to keep up with the likes of Fallin, Pops Bayless, Lil Rev and uking one-man-band dynamo Paul Moore, here on tour from Israel.

Rick Russo's crooner style warbling on numbers like "Little Brown Gal" and (no kidding) "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen," was way cool, as were the Fabulous Heftones, a Michigan couple who dress in period costume to sing turn-of-the century (that's two turns ago, now) love songs like "For Me & My Gal" and "Rose of Washington Square," accompanied by ukulele (of course) and the Heftone bass -- like an oversized, upright, fretless banjo, with a big, detachable bodhran for a soundboard.

But perhaps best of all was schmoozing with Victoria from Raratonga, with her Cook Islands-style ukulele, made from a tree cut down outside her house and strung with fishing line, and getting to strum accompaniment while she danced the hula in the hotel hallway at 3 a.m. Does it get any better than this?

That does bring me to the expo's one noticeable shortcoming this year. Where were the Hawaiians? It is a ukulele expo, after all, and Hawaii is not only the birthplace of the uke, but home to a born-again and thriving ukulele tradition. Perhaps the Hawaiians are attending the uke fests that have been springing up on the West Coast, a few hours closer to home for them, one of which is also sponsored by the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum. That's natural enough, but if this fest is to retain its vigour and relevance, the organizers are going to have to make a special effort to ensure Hawaiians get here next year, both as performers and as participants.

Still and all, this was the best musical weekend of my life. I left on such a natural high, the marathon eight-hour drive home seemed to slip by like a Sunday afternoon outing. If you have any interest in either ukuleles or early Americana roots music, I'd say this annual Ukulele Expo is a don't-miss event.

- Rambles
written by John Bird
published 17 October 2004

[ visit the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum's website ]