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Monday, Sept. 17, 2012

Milwaukee’s Fountain of Uke

Lil’ Rev on the Fourth Annual Ukulele Fest

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Lil Rev

 

Lil’ Rev has built an under-the-radar national musical career. Touring the U.S. by car, he plays a circuit of folk clubs and festivals and a string of house parties, elder homes and Jewish community centers; he’s released a dozen CDs and eight ukulele instruction books or DVDs for music publishing giant Hal Leonard. And while he began as a more-or-less conventional guitar-and-harmonica folksinger, Rev came into his own with the ukulele revival, one of those vital if far from mainstream currents that run through our eclectic era. He’s also a principal organizer of the Fourth Annual Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, held Oct. 20 at Sunset Playhouse.

Have you been on tour lately?

I finished my seventh winter tour—three months through Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada. I did a little Colorado and New Mexico tour this summer as well. We’ll do it again this winter, along with an East Coast tour in November from the Carolinas to Maine.

Do you go on tour with a trunk load of CDs?

I have cases of stuff—poetry books, CDs, t-shirts. I give away kazoos with lilrev.com on them or bumper stickers when people buy a CD.

What else have you been up to?

This summer my baritone ukulele instruction book came out. I’m going to repackage my Fountain of Uke CDs, volumes one and two—I’ll take five or six songs off those discs and go into the studio to record a few new songs for it.

I have a Fountain of Uke blog, which I’m using to write about music history. I’ve been doing a bunch of shows with Jim Liban and Steve Cohen, who have been a huge source of inspiration to me. It’s led to the creation of a body of Yiddish blues songs—“Let Me Be Your Mensch, Baby.” I play a handful of shows each year with Frogwater. I’m coauthoring a book with John Nicholson of Frogwater, Fiddle Tunes for Ukulele.

Milwaukee is a great source of work. The music scene here has been good for my soul. Moving to Portland or New York has never been on my radar. We have such great music here.

How did you begin playing ukulele?

Someone gave me one at a show at Nash’s Irish Castle and I was smitten with its simplicity. A happier instrument you’ll never find. It exudes good juju. People smile when they see it, they smile when they hear it. When I started playing ukulele in the early ‘90s, it definitely wasn’t cool like it is now.

Did any of your fans have a problem with you when you shifted to ukulele?

Most people were pleasantly surprised. I heard laughter, whether it was with me or at me didn’t matter. My goal as an entertainer is to make people forget their troubles.

Is the ukulele revival still gaining momentum?

A Hal Leonard executive recently said that ukulele instruction books “are the hottest things we have going.” Guitar makers who never made ukes or stopped making them years ago are getting into the market.

And this has carried over into the Fourth Annual Milwaukee Ukulele Festival?

It’s been growing leaps and bounds. We’re expecting a sell-out at the Sunset with people from Milwaukee and all over the country in the audience. We’ll have an array of local land regional ukulele builders and vendors coming in and we’re presenting more variety this year, a cross-section in terms of the teaching workshops and the performers—from real old timey to artists who defy explanation.

For a complete roster of events, go to: mufest.com.