Slide over Jimi Hendrix; lay off Eric Clapton; because here comes….Jumping Jim? He’s just one of the 18 acts who showed off their ukulele mastery at Ukestock, held in Worcester (pronounce it “Wooster”), MA this past Saturday, September 6th.

First, a little disclosure: I love the ukulele. In June, my wife and I went to Hana for our second anniversary and took a little mini-lesson on ukulele at the Hotel Hana-Maui. We loved it so much, we refused to part with our practice ukes until we had to leave, and promptly picked up a pair of Ponos at Bounty Music in Kahului. Playing together is one of our favorite “couple-things” to do, so much so that we subject our friends to little mini-concerts (keep in mind that several of them are professional musicians, so they are incredibly patient with us). Having played guitar on and off, I find the ukulele (pronounced “oo-koo-le-le”, not “you-koo-le-le”) the perfect size for some mellow playing at home.

Which is exactly what I was doing when I found an online advertisement for Ukestock on Saturday morning. I was amazed – was there really enough interest in the ukulele here to warrant a festival? My curiosity piqued, I set out for the White Eagle Hall Ballroom (in the midst of a tropical storm warning) to find out.

The Scene

After negotiating downtown Worcester’s maze of streets and roundabouts, I found Ukestock‘s venue on Green Street tucked within two blocks of bars, dance clubs and music stages – Worcester’s local music scene. I walked out of the rain and into the White Eagle Hall, paid my $8 at the door (the “expensive” price for not reserving a ticket in advance) and entered the festival.

White Eagle Hall is not Wembley Hall – more like a Polish-American VFW complete with an 8-foot tall map of Poland and massive watercolors of Polish National Parks. The hall is old-school architecture – long and tall, with wooden floors under an even rectangular grid of metal folding chairs, some of which (particularly those up front) were already occupied when I got there. The raised stage was unadorned except for several mic stands, amps, and a single light tree flashing a random sequence of white, pink and sort-of-baby blue spots. Toward the front were a few tables occupied by the “ukulele capitalists”. I bought a ukulele jazz chord book from Curt Sheller, and Flea Market Music was selling books, CDs and ukelele’s – more about them later.

The crowd was not what I expected. Having mostly seen ukulele played in Hawaii, I have never witnessed so many white people gathered for a uke concert. No big bruddahs, no hapa wahines – the only person of color was the security guard. And it was clearly an older crowd, with 40+ folks in Hawaiian print shirts greatly outnumbering the few teenage alt-fans, the locally curious and the kids dragged in by their parents. A very different demographic than a Duke’s Ukes contest (incidentally, which is happening September 27th in Waikiki). But there was definitely a buzz in the air – people were excited to hear a little ukulele!

Oh, and one important detail – there was a bar.

The Artists

One of the unique things about Ukestock was the mixture in the line-up – several professional uke players and bands mixed in with a few amateurs, some of whom have been playing less than a year. The choice of music was equally varied, from rock ballads to old folk tunes, from hawaiianna to…well, some of it I’m not sure how you would actually classify. But long-term ukulele experience did not seem to be a requirement for good playing – even the supposed “amateurs” rocked out. One of the best performances of the night was put in by Jon Short, a local public school teacher and blues specialist, who picked up the ukulele last year. His performance was dynamic – using his uke as a percussion instrument, spinning it in his hands and calling out to the crowd. Other performers, like “Jumping” Jim Beloff and his wife “Leaping” Liz Beloff, had a more classic hapa-haole feel. In general, Hawaiian shirts were the order of the day, but there was plenty of mixed style, from Craig Robertson’s signature zoot suit and fedora to more laid-back jeans and t-shirts.

But no matter the style or ability, the crowd was into it. The whole event had a feel of part small town community dance, part karaoke bar, part old time music revival. And it was fun.

People at Ukestock

Ukestock is the creation of Rich “Amazing Dick” Leufstedt, a frenetic Auburn resident in a flame-streaked shirt, who clearly has a real passion for ukulele. A self-described “ukaholic”, Rich told me that he got into ukulele about 5 years (and 13 ukes) ago while doing open mike nights. Although a bass player at heart, Rich found he could differentiate himself by playing ukulele. Hooked, he organized the first “Ukapalooza” in 2007 as a means of bringing together like-minded players. It was a huge success, their venue at the Hotel Vernon packed wall-to-wall as 15 acts showed off their ukabilities. The White Eagle Hall was chosen to accommodate an even larger crowd this year. “Next year we’re going outside,” he said, while flitting between friends, performers and vendors. “We’re going camping.”

Not everyone at Ukestock was a ukulele fanatic. Mia and Patrick, two Worcester locals who came with friends, had heard about the event from the Boston Globe and thought it might be entertaining. They had never played nor heard ukulele before. “Our friend is into ukulele,” said Mia, “but Patrick plays guitar. But he was eyeing some of the ukeleles for sale.”

Those ukuleles were from Flea Market Music, based out of Clinton, CT and headed by “Jumpin” Jim Beloff. I was pretty excited to see Jim here, as one of the first songbooks my wife and I picked up was “Jumpin Jim’s Gone Hawaiian”, and I recognized his picture from the book cover. Jim’s story is an interesting one, as he got into ukulele over 15 years ago when he picked up a Martin tenor at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Flea Market. He and Liz soon turned hobby into career, producing over 20 beautiful songbooks and one of the first history books on ukuleles. Jim’s brother-in-law Dale Webb also designed two robust and low-cost ukulele models – the “fluke” and the “flea” – that provides additional revenue for their venture. I had been wondering if anyone actually lived off the ukulele, and it turns out that these guys do. “Our whole family makes a living off of this,” said Liz, “We’re very fortunate.”

An Uke-filled Future

The business success of the Beloffs, and the substantial turnout at Ukestock, both reflect a growing interest in ukulele playing in the northeast. Several ukulele festivals and concert series have sprung up in recent years, including the New York Uke Fest (held in April) and Uke Noir right here in Boston. Why interest in ukulele is rising as of late is not clear, although perhaps it is a cyclical phenomenon. There have been previous ukulele golden ages at the turn of the 20th century and in the 1950s and 1960s when Hollywood “rediscovered” Hawaii. For the folks at Ukestock, riding the current trend is certainly a thrill. Expect to see more ukulele events like Ukestock in the northeast over the next few years.

And if you’re inclined, pick up an uke of your own!