Rockin' The Uke at The Bean 

Ukulele fans, rejoice!

Okay, okay... Simmer down. It’s hard to hear with all that screaming.

But seriously, folks, there are ukulele fans. I’m not talking about Don Ho fetishists or middle-aged women who still go to bed at night curled around fraying pillows with yellowed Tiny Tim iron-ons.

I’m talking about serious, dedicated musicians.

Long viewed by many not in the know as more of a toy than an actual professional musical instrument, over the past few years, the humble uke has made quite a comeback in certain circles.

And not necessarily the ones you might expect. In fact, more and more, ukuleles are popping up in the hands of alternative rock and avant-garde musicians – and they’re being put to use creating and embellishing underground, outsider music.

That’s a far cry from a decade or two ago, when the last place you’d be likely to find a cat playing one was a punk club.

But then again, most folks back then weren’t installing a pickup (or merely taping a contact microphone) into their ukes and blasting them through a loud amp or a distortion pedal, either.

So what precipitated this shift?

Local uke enthusiast (and Old-Time musicologist) Joe Nelson thinks he knows at least part of the answer, and he says it’s the same reason that he loves the instrument as much as he does (which is quite a lot as he owns several different makes and types of the diminutive axe).

“I think it's probably the amount and the variety of music that can be coaxed

from it,” he says. Furthermore, he says the populist aspect of the instrument makes it an ideal tool to be used by music lovers of all ages, attitudes and persuasions.

“It’s true that ukes were adopted by old-time musicians...but I don't know if you could say that the uke ‘belonged’ to one particular type of music. The ukulele belongs to the people!”

Nelson recalls that when he initially began gigging in local bars not known for presenting traditional Americana, he figured he’d have to plant his feet firmly in the ground and take a stand for what he believed in. His instrument of choice?

The uke.

“When I began playing the Velvet Elvis five years ago, I knew I'd encounter lots of resistance from the conservative and repressive hierarchy of rock musicians who run this town with an iron fist,” he says with a wry smile.

“So, I figured the best way to demonstrate my attitude to the establishment was by playing the ukulele.”

William Preston Robertson would probably crack a smile at that recollection. A Savannah native who left town long ago for a career in the motion picture industry (he has since notably worked on several films by the Coen Brothers, as well as written screenplays for feature films and HBO movies) , Robertson is returning home this weekend to screen his latest effort, Rock That Uke!

The low-budget documentary is the first serious effort to focus on the growing ukulele renaissance, and to specifically feature uke enthusiasts who exist on the far fringes of what might best be termed the “traditional music” scene.

Calling them “the four-stringed underdogs of the musical world,” Robertson’s take on uke counterculture is that it’s more of “a state of mind” than merely an affinity for a particular instrument – and the cast of devoted followers he profiles in his film would seem to bear out that hypothesis.

A minor hit at film festivals around the country, Rock That Uke! posits the instrument as being at the forefront of the latest wave of post-punk Americana and twangy alternative country that is edging farther and farther into the mainstream.

It only makes sense for this film to screen at this venue, as many of the most popular live acts which play this room utilize the uke (along with a variety of anachronistic stringed instruments). As far as Savannah goes, The Bean is ground zero for ukulele culture.

Along with the film (and an obligatory Q & A with the filmmaker) the evening will also feature live performances by Nelson, along with North Carolina’s critically- acclaimed retro duo The Mad Tea Party (who employ quite a bit of uke in their whimsical, vaudevillian ditties), and Sandra Hines.

Finally, for those considering taking up a stringed instrument, Nelson says there are two great reasons for choosing a uke over a guitar or banjo.

“Its cheap and you've got a lot less competition!” (Laughs) w

Rock That Uke! will be screened by its director at the Sentient Bean Coffeehouse off the Southern end of Forsyth Park on Saturday at 7 pm. Additionally, live performances by The Mad Tea Party, Joe Nelson and Sandra Hines. This no-smoking and no-alcohol show is open to ALL AGES.


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Jim Reed

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