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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010

Lil’ Rev: Milwaukee’s Ukulele King

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As a prolific, nationally touring performer and recording artist for the past 15 years, Lil’ Rev has been among the busiest of Milwaukee musicians. Later this year Rev will release a CD with one of his local heroes, folk singer Larry Penn, and he occasionally shares the stage with such other Milwaukee inspirations as blues harmonica kings Steve Cohen and Jim Liban. At the moment he’s wearing the hat of an impresario, helping organize the second annual Milwaukee Ukulele Festival.

You began on guitar and harmonica. How did you become interested in the ukulele?

A fan gave me his ukulele years ago when I was playing at Nash’s Irish Castle. It was fun—playing it felt relaxed and happy. The guitar was always more like work for me.

The ukulele recently turned up on Train’s hit “Soul Sister.” What’s with the sudden popularity of the instrument?

At the heart of it, the ukulele is unpretentious and non-threatening. It can be played raucously—but there’s still humor in it. It can also be damn romantic, sentimental and sweet. In some ways it’s got the punk sensibility—anyone who sees a ukulele thinks, “I can do that.” And you can buy a decent one for $30.

You are one of the founders of the Milwaukee Ukulele Club, correct?

Cherylann Kelly and I were the instigators. We have as many as 45 people showing up for meetings. People are coming in from Brookfield and Waukesha. It’s not just East Side hipsters. We run from 20-year-olds to 80-year-olds—a real cross-section of ages.

As I traveled around the country playing ukulele festivals, I noticed that most of them were organized by local clubs. That was my ulterior motive! Around the country, many of those clubs are doing good work in their communities. The Detroit Ukulele Club started an after-school program for kids with ukulele—these are the sorts of grassroots things that are happening.

Tell me about this year’s Ukulele Festival.

We learned a few things from last year. This time we’re leaving more space in between workshops on the schedule for socializing and jamming. We’ll have around 15 vendors—ukulele companies and builders, artisans, vintage instrument dealers.

The only return performer from last year will be singer-songwriter Victoria Vox. The variety of music will be huge. Ralph Shaw and Joel Eckhaus do vaudeville and doo-wop tunes on ukulele. Mark “Spanky” Gutierrez plays jazz and swing. The DitchLilies, from Maiden Rock, Wis., play early country, Tin Pan Alley and rags. And the Milwaukee Ukulele Club plays anything and everything. I’ll be the MC—I’ll do a couple of solo tunes and try to get everyone laughing and having a good time.

For more information on the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, which takes place 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sept. 25 at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 631 N. 19th St., visit mufest.com.

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