The UK’s award-winning Grand Northern Ukulele Festival, with its 50 acts and much more besides, is rightly considered the gold standard in ukulele festivals. I was there to play, but I was also there to experience the festival as a punter and participant, so here’s a collection of moments I found in performance.
Around the Festival
While much of the GNUF is based at the 1819 Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) there are a range of other satellite venues. The Head of Steam and The Sportsman pubs hosted nights of performance and open mics that were heaving with players and listeners. At a pre-festival gig, I craned my neck to see father and son duo Dead Man’s Uke gruffly pumping out bluesy swing tunes, with the vocalist playing a uke that I later found out used to belong to Tiny Tim.
At these venues, the performance doesn’t end at the lip of the stage, with groups of strummers in other rooms poring over chord charts or leaning in to each other’s music, sharing songs. Many rooms are full, but it’s easy to find a quieter corner and connect with someone else holding a ukulele case and find out where they’ve come from, which acts they’ve come to see, or even be. Tonight I meet people from Germany, Alaska, the Netherlands, Australia, and Chester, as well as just down the road.
Vinyl Tap Stage and Mim’s International Sideshow
On Saturday morning I go to a great record bar called Vinyl Tap. I later realise it’s an ‘iconic’ store. Last week Kate Tempest and Simon Armitage were here with the BBC for Record Store day, but today a young guy called Matty Mason is making his GNUF debut with his own arrangement of Cavatina. He’s nervous, but really good.
Then, with a shy charm, he hits us with the world premiere of one of his own compositions.
Inbetween sets, and inbetween racks of vinyl I get talking to a couple in the audience with two kids in a pram. Hamish isn’t a uke player. It turns out he’s a rather famous guitarist in extreme metal bands. He’s here to watch his dad Iain Glencross (The Hawaiian Shirt Racer) onstage. He points out his oldest daughter, watching her granddad’s show start. Ukulele festivals are often family friendly and GNUF is no exception. This isn’t the only time the ukulele unites three generations, as virtuoso Ukulelezaza (AKA Remco Houtman) brings his Mum and son into his show on the mainstage later that evening.
It’s not uncommon for ukulele players to tell you that ‘they just play for fun’, and even that they’re ‘not musicians’. Last night I met quite a few who cheerfully told me they were no good at all. Yet here I see the very same people playing proficiently solo and in groups, performing with great confidence, greeted with joy by appreciative audiences. Maybe we need to revise what the term ‘musician’ means.
One might imagine that the hair at a ukulele festival is greying or sparse, with the instrument supposedly taken up by middle-aged people or older, but this assumption is incorrect. It’s not hard to find young people attending or performing on all the stages of GNUF, from main, to side, to open mic, to the ‘found’ performances in courtyards and foyers. On the Mainstage, Amelia Coburn (a BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards Nominee) performs a knockout cover of Bowie’s Life on Mars with an energy and maturity beyond her 17 years. Ryo Montgomery has come all the way from Cairns, Australia to bring his casual virtuosity to the instrument. It’s hard to make playing that good look that easy. The audience loves what he does, and one suspects with his larrikin charm and easily tossed halo of hair, loves him too.
Biscuithead and the Biscuitbadgers are hilarious and bittersweet, bringing accessible absurdities in silly-sad songwriting, polymathematical arrangement and piss-funny performance to their very visual show. I love this gig. It’s over way too quickly.
The Poor Boys of Worcester bring a bit of wry testosterone to the stage, their ukuleles once again proving that size isn’t everything. Decked out in kilts and leather, Sweden’s Fagersta Ukulele Klub prove that size can be massive. Andy Eastwood plays better than Formby, has some backing musicians with him tonight, but simply shines when he’s solo on the banjulele, slamming out cascades of chords with feathery power. Sam Muir offers a calm classical approach to the ukulele and brings a student to the stage to accompany her and then play a solo piece that brings the house down. Instances of inclusion like this are all over GNUF, and point to what Kamuke editor Cameron Murray calls the “unconditional encouragement” of ukulele festivals, a quality which extends everywhere from the smallest singalong in the corner of a pub to the mainstage of GNUF.
Unplugthewood , Original Ukulele Songs and Tricity Vogue’s Late Night Cabaret
In the fairylit basement of the venue are two stages with a stronger emphasis on original material. Quirkulele is in his very early teens and skilfully sings songs that capture that age perfectly. Zoe Bestel, in indie singer-songwriter mode, uses loop pedals and softly keening vocals to open an ethereal window on her original songs. Talking to her later, she admits she’s played for Prince Charles. Robin Evans Esq., who holds the world record for durational ukulele playing, performs a shorter set tonight, including a rap about tea-drinking which creates a brew-ha-ha. WeTigers, a duo from the Netherlands, perform very quietly, in the mode of Lullatone or Penguin Café Orchestra, who they cover in their set. Ooty and the Cloud offer super-sensitive tunes which recall the Incredible String Band or Vashti Bunyan. Phil Doleman and Ian Emmerson hand us guitar and uke tunes, sung in close harmony. They make old songs sound like new friends. This is good time music – hard to play, but made to look easy. Like many of the best players here, Phil holds his mastery lightly, always in the service of the songs.
I play two sets as Tyrone. One is a short set for Tricity Vogue’s Late Night Cabaret. Before I arrive in the UK we exchange emails about set length and which songs I’ll play. An expert cabaret artist herself, he’s aiming for a tight night of extreme variety populated by quality acts with a humorous or risque edge, including a saucy song she’s written earlier in the day with workshop participants, who’ll join her onstage to play it. She writes her own song (Whip out your Instrument) which all acts learn and play as a finale. There’s an art to curating this gig, and it’s worth it.
Soundcheck is quick. Backstage flows into the audience, as acts stand by, costumed, enjoying the preceding and succeeding act perform to ensure quick changeover, and make sure we don’t miss anything. I’ve never been in a friendlier backstage environment. The show takes off and the audience loves it. My longer set earlier in the day seemed to be a hit too. I wouldn’t ordinarily give myself such a review, but once people work out who I am, they feel free to come up and tell me so. That doesn’t happen everywhere. There’s a longer story here (that many artists who’ve come to GNUF could tell) in terms of what playing to foreign audiences might mean for a performer and their material (or indeed what it may take for an Australian accent to sound exotic).
Workshops where learning is formalised are a regular feature of ukulele festivals and there are plenty to choose from at GNUF incudinglaying techniques, song writing, and even instrument making. Workshops not only allow people get to play in parallel and alongside others but also get intimate instruction and performance experiences from master players. Andy Eastwood’s ‘Make me musical’ bridges the gap between his advanced musical training and practical expertise with his participant’s advanced musical enthusiasm and curiosity.
Mellow Danish uke master Tobias Elof is someone I’ve specifically come to see. I love his music and playing. He and his musical partner Nicholaj Wamberg have just released a book of tunes and tabs, literally hot off the presses and take us through a couple of its highlights – Danish and other folk tunes arranged for ukulele.
Their workshop’s in the the Attic Theatre, and the music’s utterly beautiful – more like Erik Satie than adaptations of Danish folk tunes. Elof performs at the end of the workshop in an intimate showing where it’s totally permissible for people to lean in and film them on phones so they can learn them later. Punters gather round their book at the merch stand, all wanting a piece of performance they can take home and recreate themselves.
Elof and Wamberg were my must see for this festival and I’m very glad I did. There’s a very particular silence that an audience who’ve come to listen emanate, and it’s palpable tonight, as the duo weave ukulele and double bass into the stunning compositions found on their album Byen Sover (The City is Asleep). They hold a full house on the mainstage in the palms of their hands with their exquisite originals, and not a word spoken.
There was no way to catch every act at this festival, but I have learned the artists on the program aren’t solely defined by their instrument. On the contrary, the festival is a point of creative convergence for artists from scenes as diverse as cabaret, theatre, folk, rock, blues, classical, variety, community, circus, singer-songwriter, burlesque and players for pleasure. This dynamic astronomically ups the chances of stumbling across something unexpectedly amazing. Even if you find something that’s not up your alley, the sets are short you can blink and you’ll miss it, or look elsewhere for something that’s bound to float your boat. Even better, you could go play something yourself.
As Australian author (and ukulele player) Helen Garner points out, the ukulele “has a simple and benevolent purpose: to create a gentle bed of sound for the human voice; to enrich the single line of melody that a human voice is capable of.”
The whole festival ends on the mainstage with a singalong led by the Hedge Inspectors. Song lyrics and chords are broadcast on a screen behind the performers and everyone in the audience plays. The musical momentum is an accumulation of individual inspirations and personal practice, the professionalism of performers, the learning in lessons, the strenuous strumalongs of the open mic and the camaraderie of clubs and community concerts across the world.
Eventually the festival artists fill the stage, and there’s no-one in this huge room that isn’t singing. One of the tunes in this short set (that I’ve never heard before, but am suddenly playing) contains the refrain ‘I don’t know where we are going now’, and there’s something about that line I really like. It’s an unspoken (it’s sung) acknowledgement of the new connections we have made during the festival – connections between us and our instrument, discoveries of new artists and songs, but most importantly, connections between people.
This making of music together, whether it’s large or small scale, planned or spontaneous is emblematic of the ukulele festival. As well as the indefatigable group strummers, circled around the music they’re making, leaning in to the music as well as each other, a group singlalong is more often than not built into the program of a ukulele festival.
At the informal post-festival celebrations in a hotel bar I hear two banjoleles playing sharp and fast in tandem. I hear the crowd go nuts, and peer through the thicket of people gathered around the sound. It’s Andy Eastwood playing with Ukulelezaza from the Netherlands. A rare pairing. The virtuosity is serious, but the playing is playful. These are two of the world’s best, spontaneously playing together for the joy of it. Later in the evening, I’m able to play alongside them, as others do. From experts to beginners, the impulse is the same. To play music together.
In a bar in London, on my way home, I hear a familiar accent and get talking to another Australian. They ask why I’m in the UK, and when I tell them they respond “Gee, that’s a long way to come to play the ukulele. I hope it was worth it.”
Yes, it is.
And yes. It was.
All photographs by kind permission James Millar @ https://www.jamestmillar.com
This project is supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland