It's Saturday morning on Albert Road, Portsmouth. On the surface it seems like any normal day among the eclectic mix of antique sellers and fried chicken joints (and for most people it is), but a closer look reveals something very slightly odd. Moving around in pairs, or alone, chatting or just taking in the nearly-seaside air, people are carrying ukuleles. It’s not exactly Glastonbury in late June, but the signs are there: the first ever Grand Southern Ukulele Festival is in town. I’d taken advantage of some people’s apparent overindulgence on the previous night and driven down for headline act Aldrine Guerrero’s ‘Perfect Practice Makes Perfect’ workshop (loved it, full of useful tips) and had almost 12 hours’ worth of ukulele performances to look forward to. The late morning and early afternoon found me in The Loft, a traditional small venue above the Kings Pub, enjoying the day’s preliminary schedule. Highlights included Liam Capper-Starr’s understated skill, 'Special Guest' Ricky Tart’s vocal power and loop pedal trickery, Chonkinfeckle’s speak-sung Lancashire comedy and a first of two sets from the high-tempo Dead Mans Uke. Just time for a quick bite to eat and then across the road to the Kings Theatre, where the festival would make itself at home for the rest of the day.
At 2pm, with a decent crowd settled in to both levels of the venerable auditorium, we met our host – Mister Joe Black, dressed to impress in the first of many monochrome outfits. Joe (pick your own pronoun) did a great job throughout the day, not only of frightening the more genteel sections of the audience, but of dealing with a ‘problem’ perhaps unusual to festival compères: the acts consistently being ready too soon. At an event where the onstage tech setup between performances basically consists of one person unplugging their instrument and the next plugging in and adjusting the height of the microphone, Black still managed to build a rapport while simultaneously dialling down his burlesque sensibilities (..almost – a suggestive Britney-related microphone incident did slip through the net. It’s fine. Maybe nobody noticed) to cater for the scattered preteens among us. He read the room well – audience and diverse performers alike – and gave the afternoon and evening sessions a cheeky, self-aware continuity that fits the ukulele perfectly.
First up were the Mother Ukers, just arrived in the DeLorean “from 1922, also known as Bournemouth”. Seasoned experts at taking chart songs of all genres and ukeifying them (that is to say, swinging the rhythm and adding chunky-chunky chords), their version of The Prodigy’s Firestarter never fails to raise a smile. Well done to them, too, for continuing my personal process of being slowly won over to the ukulele bass with a strong and tidy sound, simple but effective.
Peter Moss came next, bringing a steady hand, lots of solo experience and an air of quiet competence. He lets his uke do most of the talking, and was the only act to attempt a Roy Smeck number (Rockin’ The Uke) on the day. His Can-Can is classic ukulele entertainment, as are the quirks of his performance – staring down the audience, vaudeville-style, as he plays, and shouting “Hey!” with a big grin at the end of each piece.
The performance of classic rocker Ben Rouse, one of the festival’s organisers, was perhaps modestly low on the bill given his prowess and the stylistic variety he brings to the table. With many performers bringing in bass guitarists to counter the ukulele’s natural treble sound, a welcome variation was provided by Jamie Wilson, who accompanied Rouse’s entire set on cello. They’re not the first to think of it (see James Hill and Anne Janelle, among others), but low bowed strings complement the ukulele perfectly (the cello, played well, may be my favourite instrument to listen to anyway), and a song like AC/DC’s Thunderstruck isn’t really complete without the meaty, chugging rhythm part, impressive as it is played solo. This whole performance sounded great and lifted the energy in the theatre.
This was followed by sets from Michael Adcock, Vix & her MsChiefs and Seb Olway, all playing very different styles and winning over the audience in their own ways. But the afternoon session still had plenty left in the tank, with Italian Francesco Albertazzi – the day’s first non-Brit, treating us to some of his beguiling compositions and arrangements. With Andrea Negruzzo’s Einaudian piano accompaniment and Albertazzi’s Miloš-esque chops, this is the kind of softly-spoken music they play when you’re on hold to the car insurance company.. except half an hour of this might actually calm you down.
Two players who have their technical similarities but whose performance styles are very different are open-mic guru Krabbers and Bermudian Mike Hind (he’s from Bermuda, you know). Both kept it simple, playing low-key, strum-and-sing sets that included plenty of self-penned material, emotional at times but with plenty of laughs and audience participation too. Krabbers understands the power of a heartfelt rhyme, sung by a normal bloke over a Bbmaj7 chord (surely the saddest chord of them all), while managing to fit in a crude poo pun here and there for good measure. Hind (you know, from Bermuda), who played in the evening session, is evidently a seasoned stage entertainer, who bounces off the audience, his fellow performers in the wings, the compère – anyone he can find. It’s all about simply being together, laughing, crying and making music, and that always makes for a hugely rewarding experience for everyone.
Dead Mans Uke followed up their above-the-pub set earlier on by closing the afternoon session, ably accompanied by Scouse two-piece the Mersey Belles, whose backing vocals and smiley energy are a great fit for the father-son duo’s more deadpan humour and frenetic musical style.
After a break to choose from Southsea’s diverse restaurant selection (tapas, very nice, thanks for asking), we were back on track with Northampton boys Jono & The Uke Dealers, as close to true punk as you can get with two ukuleles instead of battered Strats. There’s that wonderful variety again – they even had a full drum kit! Their shoutalong song Life Is Chaos, mercifully, fell just short of inspiring a brutal mosh pit in the stalls.
Another visitor from the continent was next: unobtrusive and beguiling Belgian Ukulelezaza. Masterfully plucking away, lounging on a chair, he brings to mind a park-bench strummer playing only to amuse himself but looking down, surprised, to find a hat full of Euros at the end of the day. Listening to him play classic blues on a uke he made himself carries the same sense of relaxation of watching a master at work in any field, and his right-hand feel on a vintage Martin is a joy.
Then, a chance to watch British stalwart Phil Doleman at work. There’s a sense that he doesn’t need to hide at all, his ukulele doing all the work of a full band and accompanying his own rasping vocals. A fun and professional set, but left one question unanswered: what does Diddy Wah Diddy mean?
Victoria Vox treated us to a showcase of her considerable songwriting ability – if the next Bond film is set in Hawaii, she’s got a nailed-on theme song in Supermoon – along with charming vocals, inventive yet unfussy ukulele playing and her not-so-hidden talent, the mouth trumpet. An ‘instrument’ with popular roots in the early 20th Century that many people regard as exclusively a comedy device, and that’s harder to play than it seems? How could we not love it? Vox’s ‘chanson’ influences (she lived in France for a year, she informs us) show through the sense of mournful longing in Mon Coeur Vide – a beautifully stripped-back combination of baritone ukulele and breathy vocal.
The task of finishing the show fell into the capable hands of Aldrine Guerrero – he of those fab YouTube playalong videos – and he met the challenge with aplomb, harnessing all the day’s energy and guiding it to an awe-inspiring crescendo with the support of guitarist Aaron Nakamura. Playing in a similar virtuoso style to Jake Shimabukuro, but with perhaps a little less physical showmanship, Aldrine lets his incredible solo skills do all the work when taking on Santana’s Europa. A talent for songwriting is also clearly in evidence, though, in the sweet-as-pie With Love, From Italy. Listening to the accompanying story of his recent engagement, followed by the song’s jaunty beachside riffs, you start to wonder quite why Jason Mraz is so much better-known than Guerrero. Surely this, rather than I Won’t Give Up, or even I’m Yours, would make a better first dance at weddings? Get on it, people. This was one of those live performances that could either make you want to pack it all in completely or go home and practise until your fingers have biceps. I went home and practised. An amazing performance.
Unfortunately I couldn't stay around for the Late Night Ukulele Cabaret, but for those who could, the night was only just beginning. This entire event had a nice relaxed and accepting feel, and, spread out over a diverting shopping street near the seafront, a pleasant and prominent setting. The Kings Theatre itself played a starring role, an august and characterful yet unimposing venue that allowed the ukulele the breathing space it deserves without swamping it in empty space. There’s certainly the space, geographically speaking, for an annual event like this on the South coast, and hopefully the organisers, who did a sterling job, will be encouraged to do it all again for years to come.
Jon Allen: uke teacher and occasional songwriter