How many years ago?

As we head into February, lots of anniversaries are coming up.  I’ll be talking more about each, but to give you a preview, in less than 10 days we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the first shots fired in the British Invasion, the night the Beatles appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show.

And sometime soon after that (precision is difficult, as factory records aren’t conclusive), we’ll mark the 60th anniversary of Fender’s introduction of the Stratocaster.  A little bit of genius engineering, a little bit of musical inspiration, and a little bit of luck, and the result was a radical instrument that’s been the premier guitar for rock, country, blues, and countless other genres for decades.

John Lennon knew a good thing when he first picked up a Strat’

johnlennon

A Brief History of the Reno Uke Fest and PlayUke, Part II

Lots more to come in future posts, but for Part II of the Reno Fest story:

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  All you need to know about the traditional Saturday night “all ukes all the time” performance at Reno is right here.

Reno Fest

From a few years back, left to right:  Cali Rose, Paul Hemmings, Jessica Reynolds, Dominator, Char Mayer (Mya-Moe ukemaker and vocalist extraordinaire), Neil McCormick (obscured – bass player for The Boulder Acoustic Society, The Quiet American, and lots more), Aaron Keim, Jim D’Ville, Gerald Ross, Sarah Maisel, Lil’ Rev and Craig Brandau.

This is not some sort of Photoshop trick. They were all there, at the same time, sounding fantastic.

It doesn’t get any better than this.  Well actually, it does get better.  Not only do you get this kind of music, but the staff at the Nugget brings your drink orders right to your seat in the Showroom.

More soon, and if you haven’t purchased your tickets yet, get over to www.playuke.net right away.

A Brief History of the Reno Uke Fest and PlayUke, Pt. I

Minden NV

As with a lot of things in my life, “it’s a long story.”  So mix up a fruity rum drink, put some ukulele music on the stereo, and pull up a chair.

I’m a longtime fan of blues singer and guitarist Shane Dwight. In the spring of 2009 I learned that he was going to play a Friday night show in a city park in Minden, NV.  Then I found out that the weekend in Minden would also feature a “ukulele festival,” a type of event I’d heard about, but never experienced.  A little more research led me to the “Tahoe Area Uke Fest” site, where I learned that Victoria Vox (who I was a big fan of, but had not yet heard in person) was going to be there.  So after reserving a room at Minden’s Carson Valley Inn (a nice place, if you’re passing through), off I went.

After checking into my motel I headed over to the park for some great blues.  And had one of those “Hey look!  Isn’t that ….?” moments when I spotted Victoria sitting with a group of people.  The next morning I headed over to festival HQ at the 88 Cups (on Nevada State Hwy. 88, of course) Coffee Shop to check out this festival.

The phrase “life changing experience” gets bandied about quite a lot these days.  But for me, that first festival really was.  Never before had I hung out with ukulele folks, met uke makers, attended a workshop, etc.  And I even signed up for and enjoyed an individual lesson with Victoria.  (I had hoped to learn a lot of neat tricks about adding instrumental complication to my vocals.  Instead, the lesson from Victoria, from which I continue to benefit, was “keep it simple.”)

The festival was held in a recently-opened, but mostly empty, shopping center.  Promoter Doug Reynolds had arranged to use 88 Cups as “festival central,” and had set up workshop space and even a showroom with a stage in various empty storefronts.  Among the few tenants were three or four casual restaurants, all of which were ecstatic to have a bunch of hungry uke players descend on them.

Minden 2009

The featured performers and instructors were  Dan “Cool Hand Uke” Scanlon, Dominic “Dominator” Pieranunzio, Brittni Paiva and Victoria Vox, seen above on the festival’s intimate main stage.  It was the first I’d met any of them, and I’ve stayed in touch with each.  Especially with Dom, who lives nearby, and has from time to time wowed my audiences when he’s appeared as a special guest to throw in some amazing soloing.  (The usual audience response is “Wow!  I never imagined a ukulele could to THAT!”)

But the most significant thing about Minden was meeting Doug Reynolds and Rich Dann, proprietors of PlayUke LLC (www.playuke.net, which includes everything one needs to know about the Reno Uke Fest).  Doug’s from Minden, and Rich lives in Reno.  In the years since, they’ve put on some amazing retreats, festivals and events, and this coming April will be their sixth annual version of what started in Minden, and is now the world-renowned Reno Uke Fest.  (The year after the inaugural festival in Minden the event moved into its present home at John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel & Casino in Sparks, NV, next door to Reno.  Doug likes to joke that what started as the “Tahoe Area,” festival, morphed into the “Reno-Tahoe” festival, and is now simply “Reno,” has never actually been held in either Lake Tahoe or Reno.)

In upcoming blog posts I’ll introduce you to Doug and Rich, and tell you more about the amazing things they’ve been up to these past seven years.  In the meantime, however, Reno VI is on its way to being completely sold out, three months before it starts.  Head to the website to buy tickets.  And don’t delay!

Next time you’re in Benicia, CA …

 

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Together with family members, John Wilusz (chromatic harmonica and vocals) and I ventured down to Benicia’s First Street Cafe this past Saturday evening for dinner, and an appearance at the Cafe’s twice-monthy open mic.  It was our first-ever visit, and we had a great time.  Dinner downstairs was delicious, and the folks at the upstairs open mic were a lot of fun.  There’s a ton of talent in Benicia, and an enthusiastic and welcoming audience that enjoys all types of music.  Host Kevin Radley keeps it all moving right along, while giving the musicians all of the space (and good sound mixing) they need.  A lot of talented touring performers come through on the other nights of each month, as well.  Take a look at www.firststcafe.com, and click on the links for info, menus, and the entertainment schedule.  Well worth the drive … even if it’s a long one.

Happy Birthday Elvis!

elvis-ukulele-e1331557820879

A bit late, but it can’t go without notice that Elvis Presley turned 79 on Wednesday of last week.  I wasn’t invited to the party, but I’ve learned that it was held at a super-secret undisclosed location.  The man likes his privacy, you know.

By the way, is it just my imagination, or does the photo show that The King, in his enthusiasm for putting on a uke workshop for the ladies, has already busted his A-string?

Love those open mics

No matter what instrument you play, whether you sing or are purely an instrumentalist, whether you’ve got a group, or just go solo, open mics are a great way to hone your chops.

Tonight I’ll be back at the weekly open mic at Sacramento’s Torch Club, hosted from 5:30 to 8:00 by Sandra Dolores (www.sandradolores.com).  It’s always a fun time, where everyone from the seasoned pro to folks getting on stage and performing before an audience for the first time are warmly welcomed and encouraged.  And all sort of music shows up.  Blues guitar, bluegrass banjo, electrified thumb pianos, and, of course, ukuleles.  Time slots are by sign-up each evening, first come – first served, with two songs or ten minutes being the norm.  For more information go to www.torchclub.net.  (It’s a bar.  Over-21 only.  But it’s a great bar.)

torch-club-juliet-farmer

Then this coming Saturday evening, January 18th, chromatic harmonica player and vocalist John Wilusz and I will be trying something completely new:  The twice-monthly open mic at Benecia’s First Street Cafe’s Upstairs.  For info check out www.firststcafe.com, and click on “Events.”  Slots (three songs or 15 minutes) are pre-assigned, and John and I will be going on stage at 8:15 p.m.  It’s an all-ages venue, with restaurant downstairs, and food and drink available in the Upstairs venue.

Hope to see some of you at one or the other!

A salute to the “father” of the ukulele’s “Third Wave”

Without Jim Beloff, it’s possible there wouldn’t be a Ukulele Rob.

My history with stringed instruments goes back a ways, beginning with a plastic ukulele given to me when I was in the first or second grade.  By fourth grade I’d left it behind for a Sears Harmony folk guitar, which led to more guitars, and then surf, folk, rock, and jazz bands.  There were even a few months of taking classical guitar lessons.

In the 1990s I was looking for something that might be fun to take on vacation trips, and spotted a $20 plywood uke in a local music shop.  (The uke was short on intonation and playability, but traveled very nicely in a grocery bag.)  That’s when I discovered “Jumpin’” Jim Beloff and his series of ukulele songbooks.  Shortly after that I began receiving Jim’s regular Flea Market Music catalogs in the mail, and I kept looking at his ukuleles and thinking I ought to get myself one.

What finally caused me to make the move was our local Rotary Club.  For a couple of years I’d been the Club’s Song Leader, occasionally bringing along my $20 uke, which was invariably a source of good-natured ribbing.  Our Club had an annual “Hawaiian Shirt Day,” to provide a bit of a break from our normal business attire, and in 2008 I set out to salute the day by leading everyone in singing well-known Tin Pan Alley Hawaiian songs.  And I decided that a new (and better-sounding) uke was in order.  Jim’s Pineapple Flea fit the bill to a tee, arriving on my doorstep within days after I’d sent away for it.  It was love at first sight.  And that Flea is to this day my regular traveling companion.

Jim’s story has been well documented in print and on the internet.  (The late Daniel Dixon’s description of Jim in his enjoyable book, Ukulele: The World’s Friendliest Instrument [Gibbs Smith Publishing, 2011] is among the most recent re-tellings.)  Jim, a magazine publishing exec who’d studied musical theater composition in college, and his wife Liz (an accomplished film and TV graphic designer, and the creator of TriStar Pictures’ winged Pegasus logo, who’s also a great singer and entertainer) moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles in 1991, where Jim worked for Billboard Magazine.

Jim and Liz happened upon a vintage Martin ukulele at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Flea Market, and the rest, as they say, is history.  That uke sparked an interest in finding and resurrecting long-forgotten ukulele music, researching ukulele history (resulting in Jim’s The Ukulele: A Visual History [Backbeat Books 1997], the first of what has become – fortunately for us uke fans – a broad assortment of ukulele history books), and promoting what has become known as the “Third Wave” of worldwide popularity.  (According to many uke historians, the “First Wave” began with the Hawaiian music performances at the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, and the “Second Wave” with Arthur Godfrey’s radio and TV promotion of Maccaferri plastic ukes in the early 1950s.)  As success followed success, they quit their “day jobs” and devoted themselves to their new company, named – of course – Flea Market Music.

Not content with books, lesson DVDs, CDs, and festival and clinic appearances, Jim and Liz set out to provide the growing uke community with a high-quality US-made ukulele.  They enlisted Jim’s sister Phyllis Webb and her engineer husband Dale, who produced (using a toaster-oven, much like Nike’s running shoe originator Bill Bowerman) the prototype for the Fluke, the iconic, triangular, plastic bodied/wood topped instrument adopted by everyone from Ian Whitcomb (his is named “Flukie,” of course, to keep company with his vintage Martin “Ukie”) to Victoria Vox.

U Rob Photo

My arsenal includes two Flukes.  That’s me in the photo above, playing my Mahogany Fluke at the 2010 Reno Uke Fest.

To say that Jim, together with Liz, Phyllis and Dale, have had a lot to do with the uke’s current popularity would be an understatement.  And even though I’ve never met any of them, the great customer service I’ve experienced with Flea Market Music orders and some retrofitting by the Magic Fluke Company says a lot about what great people they are.

Until next time, enjoy a visit to www.fleamarketmusic.com

2014 is going to be a great ukin’ year!

Keep an eye on this space. As 2014 gets underway, I’ll be passing on information about great ukulele performers, upcoming festivals, and more news from the broader music world. It’s going to be a ton of fun.