The Half Moon pub in Putney is a proper music venue, boasting The Who, Kate Bush, U2 (yes, they did used to play in pubs, seemingly) and The Rolling Stones amongst past headliners. The single ukulele in pride of place on the wall next to the usual gifted guitars came, apparently, from Harry Hill and the Caterers. Not the most prestigious of acts, perhaps, and certainly not doing much for the ukulele’s ever-growing image as a ‘serious’ instrument, but the sign above the door to the performance space certainly had the punters talking: Uke Fest West. A full-day mini ukulele festival with workshops, stalls and an evening performance all crammed into that same room once graced by Mick Jagger and The Edge (and Harry Hill playing Smoke On The Water on the hornophone). The room itself was laid out with candlelit tables and chairs, but only enough for a lucky few early birds. With the rest of the crowd either standing or sitting around the edge of the room, this gave the beginning of the evening a slightly odd atmosphere. Someone even had a pair of Sunday roasts delivered to their table early on, the poor waiter having to politely elbow past audience members while carrying a plateful of meat and vegetables in each hand. Before too long, though, and with a good number of people through the door, it was time for the gig to begin.
Ben Rouse brought the curtain up with a solo set built on a foundation of ferocious speed and pounding rhythms. He did well, at times, to play over a slightly restless audience (including the aforementioned roast dinner brigade), soon holding the room’s full attention with his showboating style. There’s more than a whiff of heavy-metal-flamenco duo Rodrigo y Gabriela in his driving percussiveness and dramatic posturing. However, he also provides occasional breathing space with sensitive fingerpicking perhaps surprisingly good from a former rock guitarist. Crowd-pleasers Thunderstruck and Rolling in the Deep were present and correct, bringing some energy into the room – the reason Ben was the clear choice to open the show – but there’s certainly variety in there, including a gentle, almost Celtic feel in original composition The Fox and the Pussycat, an unexpected highlight of a really strong set.
Next up were hosts U Kew Lele, a group from the Richmond area. They represent a fairly wide age range, and explored a good mix of styles and eras over the course of a set that held the audience’s full attention for longer than can be expected from many amateur ukulele bands. Uke group standards like The Lumineers’ Ho Hey kept toes of all ages tapping and were sung with confidence and competence. There were fleeting chances for members to show off their individual skill, but a little more solo work wouldn’t go amiss – where’s that famous intro to Johnny B Goode? U Kew Lele’s overall sound is great, though, supported by a U-Bass with a lovely tone (well done to both the bassist and the sound engineer), occasional saxophone solos and a wonderful harmonica player who apparently used to play with Johnny Cash. I’m all for adding to the sometimes limited sound of ukulele groups with collaboration from instruments with varying timbres, and the harmonica achieves exactly that without overriding the joyous treble of the ukulele. This group embraces that ethos with open arms. Plus anyone that plays Raglan Road will always get my vote! A lot was made of the group being joined on stage by the Songbirds choir – a product of the same Ritz Music school as U Kew Lele – but their effect was lost somewhat by unsympathetic staging. It would have been nice to be able to see them! As this was a ‘world first’ collaboration, though, these details can surely be ironed out in future. Well done to U Kew Lele, overall, on an engaging and endearing performance.
And so on we pushed, through some aching backs and feet in the audience (perhaps just me – I’m sure I used to be able to stand up for hours on end with no problem..), to the headline act. Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee are an inconceivably talented engaged couple from San Diego who have combined their differing genres and voices to make something wonderful. Sarah approaches the ukulele with a focus on early 20th Century jazz and blues standards, while Craig seems to come from a more modern, Jake Shimabukuro-inspired place, and their warm, heartfelt original songs bring together elements from these styles and more. Assisted more than ably by the impressive James Agg (from Cheltenham) on double bass, Chee and Maisel glided through the early exchanges with the easy confidence of true professionals. Their voices, with two very distinct tones, blend with heavenly ease and their on-stage sincerity gives both of them an enviable immediate likeability. This – combined with some astounding ukulele playing, of course – meant their whole set flew by in what seemed like a few minutes. In reality, the audience was treated to nearly an hour of true musicianship from ukes and bass alike.
In all, it’s fair to say the first Uke Fest West was very successful, as evidenced by the fact I saw more than one person buying an instrument from the Noah Ukuleles stall straight after one of the acts. If it's inspiring people, what more can you ask for? Surely the next step in the ukulele’s friendly conquest of Britain is to have more events like this in the capital. London needs to up its game in terms of big uke shows and Uke Fest West is exactly the sort of thing we need. Here’s to many more!
Other recent blog posts:
The Ukulele Gift Minefield
10 British Ukulele Players You Should Know
Jon Allen: uke teacher and occasional songwriter