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Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009

Lil’ Rev’s Ukulele Club

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Lil’ Rev is one of Milwaukee’s hardest-working musicians and one of the only soloists earning a living from music. Recently, he was seen sprinting across Farwell Avenue wearing a vintage Hawaiian shirt covered in colorful ukuleles. The sartorial impression was perfect. Almost single-handed, Rev has led a local revival of the modest, child-size instrument that almost anyone can learn to play. He recently released Drop Baby Drop, his latest ukulele CD; last December he helped found the Milwaukee Ukulele Club, a monthly congregation of like-minded players.

Nationally, Rev is a presence on the growing circuit of ukulele clubs and festivals after authoring three instruction books and a DVD on the instrument for music publishing giant Hal Leonard.

“People are getting tired of playing Nintendo and going to movies,” he says. “They want to find ways of entertaining themselves. The ukulele is exploding!”

Rev organized the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, an all-day event this Saturday at The Coffee House in Milwaukee’s Downtown.

“My great strength is being extremely diversified,” Rev says, explaining his ability to make ends meet in music. He loves performing Americana of all sorts and his interest in keeping old-time music alive led him to the ukulele in the first place. He conceived a presentation-performance on the Jewish influence on American music, which he’s taken on tour through temples and Jewish community centers across the United States. And whether playing mandolin, harmonica or ukulele, Rev’s pre-World War II repertoire has been welcome at senior centers and children’s programs alike.

“No matter how hard you try to paint a dark picture with it, the ukulele is imbued with humor and novelty,” Rev says, explaining the instrument’s emotional resonance. “There are YouTube videos of heavy metal performed on ukulele, and it’s fun to see. I like playing ‘Blister in the Sun’ on ukulele. It’s fun to apply ukulele to other kinds of music.”

At the monthly sessions of the Milwaukee Ukulele Club, usually held Sunday afternoons at Bay View’s Anodyne coffee shop, 20 to 30 club members gather in front of an audience to perform the songs they know and work out new ones. The repertoire is wide, from calypso (“tropical songs go really well on ukulele,” Rev says), to Tin Pan Alley, folk and bluegrass, Hank Williams, even rockabilly.

Milwaukee’s long-standing venue for acoustic music, The Coffee House (631 N. 19th St.), is the host for the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival. The event begins at 10 a.m. on Sept. 26 with workshops on playing the instrument. Ukulele makers, including Wisconsin’s Todd Korup and Kyle"Zeke" Boguszewski, will be on hand. An open mike in the afternoon will be followed by a 7 p.m. concert featuring an eclectic array of talent from across America. On tap: Wisconsin expatriate Victoria Vox, performing French songs and rock originals; ragtime and 1920s music by The Fabulous Heftones; the Boulder Acoustic Society’s “ukubilly” sound; Gerald Ross playing swing and rock; and Lil’ Rev and Frogwater focusing on Celtic blues. The event’s MC, Jumpin’ Jim Beloff, is a pivotal figure in the ukulele revival.

“One thing we all agree on,” Rev says, “is that the ukulele is a happy instrument that projects a lot of joy.”

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