Ukulele bands are supposed to be funny. Saturday night at the Jalopy, the twinbill of Ukulele Scramble and the Ukuladies kept everybody chuckling and frequently laughing out loud for the better part of two hours. Name a comedian who can pull that off.
True to their name, Ukulele Scramble play a lot of mashups. When they’re not twisting styles from across the decades – and centuries – into knots, they’re playing ridiculous segues, and repertoire that was definitely never meant to be played on the uke. When’s the last time you heard ukulele versions of classical compositions by Charles Ives or Amy Beach? Ukulele Scramble did both, and well!
Six years ago, Robin Hoffman described herself as an aspiring uke player. Her main gig was visual art: her two coffee table books feature the illustrations she drew as a regular in the audience at the Jalopy. Last night, on the same stage where she captured a generation of New York Americana music talent in all sorts of revealing, kinetic poses, she played Bach. That was midway through a spiky, sparkling cover of Pink Floyd’s uneasy psychedelic pop classic See Emily Play.
Her sparring partner in this duo project, Richard Perlmutter sparred back and forth with the audience in an endless “name that tune” game when he wasn’t spinning precise spirals and nimbly plucking out complex classical chords. At least as complex as you can play on a uke, anyway
Hoffman sang the night’s funniest song, a version of the Brahms lullaby with new lyrics about being kept awake by a fly in the bedroom – the joke is too good to give away. They did Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, which more than one uke player in the crowd agreed was the first tune that pretty much everybody learns to play on it. Throughout the set, Perlmutter’s flinty vocals contrasted with Hoffman’s cool torch-singer delivery throughout all sorts of clever syncopation and intricate harmony. The most dizzyingly impressive number was a tonguetwisting can-can remake of piece by Offenbach.
The Ukuladies used to be much more ubiquitous than they are now: ten years ago, you’d find them at Rodeo Bar one day, then at Barbes or Joe’s Pub the next. So it’s no surprise that their irrepressible, theatrical shtick was more about breaking the fourth wall this time out – and maybe especially fresh because of it. Tapdancer Heather Warfel a.k.a. Cousin Bunnie flashed a series of charmingly lo-fi props while uke players Katie Down and Mary Myers a.k.a. Genevieve and her Aunt Mary harmonized together through a mix of Andrews Sisters girl-group jazz numbers and sardonic originals.
Their funniest of those was Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon, interspersed with innumerable snippets of cheesy pop songs. They also treated the crowd to Asshole in a SUV – a classic Brooklyn song if there ever was one – and a tongue-in-cheek one about getting gaymarried that managed to poke fun at both those who do and those who object to it. Singing saw player Philippa Thompson a.k.a. Jimmy Lu – who’d just played a set with another excellent Jalopy act, M Shanghai String Band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival earlier in the day – led the quartet through a witheringly cynical bossa nova parody. Warfel got a turn on lead vocals in a number where it was revealed that the Ukuladies aren’t really a family band: they’re her backing unit.
Ukulele Scramble, based in Massachusetts, are playing Sept 27 at 6:30 PM at the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library, 3 W Main St in West Brookfield, MA.