The Mount Graham Controversy, 1988
Thank You Mr. Sagan

My Dog Has Fleas: Review of the Ukulele Gala

For the little world of public radio, Minnesota Public Radio is a far-flung empire, built in no small meaure on A Prairie Home Companion. So when MPR held a Ukulele Gala, presided over by the hosts of "The Morning Show" (an excellent, eccentric, eclectic music show on one of MPR's several stations, 89.3 The Current), it seemed like a good bet to me. The show was held at the venerable old Fitzgerald Theater, home of Prairie Home and a gorgeous place to see a concert — ornate and amazingly intimate.

I can't say I was very disappointed, exactly. I've been spoiled recently by attending some transcendent gatherings of some of the best banjo players in the world, and I had imagined that a good cross-section of brilliant ukulele players would not be hard to assemble, if you know what I mean. What we got for our $31 a head (before Ticket Master) was two very entertaining local ukulele players and one flown in California, along with some dubious sketch comedy by The Morning Show's hosts.

The audience itself was a good show — acres of Hawaiian-print silk, a Tiny Tim impersonator (with latex nose), many child ukulele students, a guy with yarmulke over here, some nose rings and tattoos over there. Dozens were armed with ukuleles of all vintages, shapes, and sizes. Fifty ukulele-playing Minnesotans onstage and sawing away at Aloha Oy is not something you see every day.

As for the professionals, local musician Kari Larson is one of Garrison Keillor's "shy persons" and has a meager stage presence. But she earned great respect with some riveting instrumentals, most memorably a sweet, melodic piece exploring some variations on "When I'm Sixty-Four" and a ukulele/church pipe-organ duet on "Baby Elephant Walk." Again, not something you see every day.

The Mullet River Boys, a local group that's been known to play at a little pizza joint just up the street from my apartment, were unquestionably the Gala's highlight. Hearing them was like finding 20 bucks in an old jacket. They made me wonder once again just how many thousands of virtually anonymous musicians there are across America who are profoundly more talented than anyone you will ever see on Amerian Idol.

Their repetoire is all over the place but well-chosen, drawing from early jazz, Oldtime string-band, vaudeville, and minstrelsy. There are shades of Oliver Hardy in frontman Jack Norton, who claims to have known Tiny Tim during childhood and who today plays one of Tim's ukes. Sideman Jed Germond is more of a Stan Laurel, an exceptional jazz violinist, and a solid tenor banjoist. The third Mullet River Boy is a woman, Liz Draper, who, dressed in a high-collared long-sleeved white blouse, looked like The Church Lady, only sexy and with dreadlocks ... if you can picture that for a moment. She seemed to be a classically-trained but very versatile doghouse bass player.

Jim Beloff was the guy from California, which is apparently an epicenter of an ongoing ukulele revival. Not my cup of tea, Beloff is an amiable geek whose repetoire is deeply rooted in Tin Pan Alley, which I'm afraid still seems like an oxymoron to me. I'm working on it. His originals were built around themes I would have rejected as bereft of real ideas (e.g., a trip to the dog park) and which he used mostly to mine rhymes (e.g., "bark"). When he and his wife Liz began singing duets with much simpering drama ("Love is a Many Splendored Thing," for example) my own wife Jenny leaned over and whispered, "Waiting for Guffman."

I did very much appreciate the Celestial Monochordy quality of writing a love song around a "sheetmusic moon" of the kind you see on old piano-bench songsheets.

The show ended with an all-cast audience sing-along of the ukulele national anthem, "Has Anybody Seen My Gal." I left the theater thinking of the contrast between the Mullett River Boys and Beloff, remembering what Bob Dylan said: "Strap yourself to a tree with roots."