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Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011

Tiny Strings, Big Love

Lil Rev's Ukulele Fest

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Lil Rev had been playing guitar for years before the ukulele entered his life. “One of my fans gave me a ukulele at Nash's Irish Castle in the early '90s,” he recalls. “I remember picking it up and falling in love with the simplicity.”

Since then, Rev, who already made a name as a proponent of old-time American music, has become a tireless advocate for the tiny stringed instrument. He's not alone. In recent years, ukulele clubs and festivals have popped up all over the U.S. and sales at music stores have increased dramatically. This fall marks the 3rd Annual Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, held this year for the first time at Sunset Playhouse in Waukesha.

“It's not just an escape,” says Rev, referencing the instrument's archaic charm. “It's like a soul kiss. It soothes the spirit and the spirit needs soothing these days.” Around the country and here in town, where Rev has helped organize the Milwaukee Ukulele Club, the populist, heymish instrument has become an element in community building—a note of calming reassurance amid the 24/7 madness.

This year's Milwaukee Ukulele Festival features a day of workshops and an evening of concerts. Grammy winners Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer will play old-time Americana arranged for the instrument. Rob Bourassa will present a workshop on the music of Irving Berlin for the uke. Marianne. Marianne Brogan, organizer of the Portland Ukulele Festival, will teach an intro class on the instrument. Rev describes Craig Chee as “a young guy with Hawaiian roots—a very progressive stylist.” The Florida father-daughter duo, the Barnkickers, will play in the jazz-ragtime tradition. Gerald Ross is a known figure in the uke subculture. Rev, cajoled into headlining this year's festival, will play solo and in various combinations, culminating in a set by the Lil Rev Blues Quartet, a local multi-instrumentalist supergroup featuring Steve Cohen, Peter Roller and Jon Simmon with special guests Dave Fox and Robyn Pluer.

“This is great music for an era when everything sounds the same,” Rev concludes. “The ukulele is retaining its century-old roots while moving forward.”

The 3rd Annual Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, Sept. 24, Sunset Playhouse, 800 Elm Grove Road. For more information: www.mufest.com or purchase tickets at boxoffice@sunsetplayhouse.com or by calling (262) 782-4430.

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