[Note: I wrote this the Monday after returning from the Tahoe Area Ukulele Fest, but it’s taken me until now to get the photos sorted and this posted.
The past few days drained my sleep budget, but I’m not lamenting my recent loss of shut-eye at all.
That’s because I’ve had a good reason for not putting in more pillow time: I’ve been at the Second Annual Tahoe Area Ukulele Festival. For a confirmed uke fest-aholic like me, a festival means squeezing in as much ukulele talk, playing, learning and listening as possible---and this festival experience was no different!
While I only spent one night at the hotel (ninth floor, East Tower---overlooking I-80. Note to self: request the other side of the building next year), I think I was only in the room for 10 minutes to drop off my bag on Friday afternoon, and then hit the pillows from 2:15 to 8:45 am in the wee hours of Saturday. Golly, I snagged a great room rate, but on a per-minute-spent basis, I’ve certainly had better deals.
But I’m not complaining! Where else could you listen to ukulele greats like James Hill, Aldrine Guerrero, Brittni Paiva, Michael Powers, Dominator and Matt Dahlberg all in one 24-hour period? And that doesn’t include workshops, the chance to play ukuleles of every type and price range and oodles of uke-centric conversations with four-stringer friends new and old.
I’m lucky enough to be able to attend a good number of ukulele festivals (chalk it up to a very understanding husband and being self-employed---at least when I’m working those 14-hour days I can look forward to something fun like a festival) but I know lots of folks who read this aren’t as fortunate as I. Consider this, then your very own whirlwind tour of the Tahoe Area Ukulele Festival. Buckle up and let’s go!
Heading to Reno
Reno (or Sparks, where John Ascuaga’s Nugget is really located) is about a three-and-a-half hour drive from our home in the mountains of rural Northern California. I had two choices to get to Reno---traversing a sinuous two-lane road (Highway 70) that snakes along the Feather River Canyon and Sierra high country, arriving in Nevada via Hallelujah Junction (what a name!) or speeding over to Interstate 80 and hauling up through the Sierras playing road hopscotch with a bevy of 18-wheelers.
Can you guess that I chose the road less traveled?
Highway 70 and I are old friends---while the road is slow and the curves are tight (and the drop-offs beside the road in some places will drop your jaw as well), it’s a drive which Mark and I have enjoyed dozens of times through the years. And this time, although Mark wasn’t by my side (can you believe he opted to stay home???), each twist along the Feather River reminded me of previous trips through the canyon. But I’d never routed myself on Highway 70 on my way to an ukulele festival…
I put my iPod on “shuffle” (my playlist: “All ukulele and Hawaiian music all the time”), blew a goodbye kiss in Mark’s direction and pointed my little 1985 Mazda 626 east. Ukulele festival here I come!
Reno may be the “Biggest Little City in the World,” but its freeways were easy to navigate and I pulled into the resort’s parking lot just before 3 pm; shadows from the two monstrous hotel “towers” blanketed my parking space (right next to the front door, no parking garage for me, thank you) in a cool semi-darkness. I knew I was in the right place because the vehicle next to mine sported a guitar and ukulele store’s sign. But, geesh, the folks streaming into the double doors at the side of the building (who wants to pay for valet parking up front when they can spend the same amount of money on a few nice sets of Aquilla strings?) hardly looked like ukulele players.
At The Nugget
Still, I shouldered my Gator case with my LoPrinzi soprano inside, towed my rolling suitcase along behind me like an obedient duckling, and entered. Mirrors. Lights. Wildly-patterned carpeting. The acrid burn of cigarette smoke. More lights. Wow---it was clean and certainly didn’t feel “unsafe” in any way, but, I hadn’t been in a casino in half-a-decade so the culture shock had me looking around for a defibrillator.
[At that evening’s concert, during his between-song patter, James Hill noted his similar impressions upon entering the lobby, too. “I had this feeling of ‘voo doo jhay,” he related, playing off the “déjà vu” idiom. “It was a feeling that I’d never been in this place before.”]
I blinked my eyes a few more times (no rubbing, that’ll just make ‘em worse, my practical side warned me) and headed for the check-in area. A quick tickle of my American Express card’s magnetic strip and I found myself with a fistful of paperwork—receipts, a resort map, a sheet promising $5 in match play money—and the room key card which allotted me room 927 for the next 24 hours.
It was a nice room—very clean, decorated recently (just not necessarily in my style of room décor), roomy bath, really plush-y towels. And it overlooked Interstate 80. How nice.
I moved away from the inspiring view, switched on a couple of room lights ‘cause I knew it’d be late when I returned, and headed back downstairs.
The Nugget’s staff had staked out several large rooms for the festival—the area nicely enclosed workshops in separate rooms, a sound-equipped stage, plenty of seating and a vendors’ area. While the first workshop wasn’t slated to begin for another hour or so, ukulele-toting attendees were already busy buying raffle tickets (check out those prizes!), scouting out deals amongst the vendors and enjoying ukulele-style ‘talk story.’
Friends—new and old
In 20 ukulele festivals, I’ve met a lot of really great “ukulele people” from the east coast to Hawaii. Attending an ukulele festival, then, is a bit of a reunion as well as a chance to meet “new” ukulele friends. I frequent several ukulele forums so it’s always fun, too, to put a real face to the names of people who post there.
This time was no different. I have Jim D’Ville’s “Play Ukulele By Ear” but talking with him in person (and taking his workshop on Saturday) is a much richer experience than watching the DVD in my living room.
Mark Gutierrez, who I know from many festivals, had escaped from the Midwest’s snowy clime and showed up in Reno; we caught up on his recent accomplishment of achieving his music degree (good goin’, Spanky!). Tiki King (with his lovely wife and sophisticated-but-sweet daughter) was at my table during Friday night’s concert. Andy Andrews, at left, (lightning rod of the renowned Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz) and I shared stories about Island of Hawaii, where he’s moving this spring I counted eight others from our Ukuleles of Paradise group (Alan won one of the “big” doorprizes at festival’s end— a feat that he claimed last year, too).
I even met folks who read my blog: “Are you Ukulele Tonya?” a woman asked me as we stood side-by-side toweling our hands dry in the restroom; hmmm…fame (or maybe it’s notoriety if she’s heard me play) is a funny thing in a public restroom.
I spent time drooling and dreaming over dozens of delightful ukuleles throughout Saturday. While perusing ukulele candy on the Internet is enjoyable, plucking the strings of these wonderful instruments and talking with talented luthiers in person is exponentially better. In Reno, I really enjoyed getting to know Char Mayer of Mya Moe Ukuleles and hearing their building philosophy.
While their skills are definitely other-wordly, top stars of the ukulele world don’t elevate themselves to “better than you” status (‘can’t say that about top guitar players, can you?) and a festival will find them mingling with folks, posing for pictures, signing cases (and ukuleles) and trying out custom—and factory-made—instruments at vendor booths. I looked up from test-driving a Nalu tenor and discovered that Aldrine was right beside me, doing his own test drive of these well-designed “factory-made” instruments.
“Name dropping” isn’t much of a sport with ukulele folks because we have so many chances to interact with favorite performers on a face-to-face basis at festivals so it’s no big deal to meet a “star.” Where else could you share a meal with Dominator and Matt Dahlberg—or a late-night elevator ride with James Hill and friends? Still, it’s always fun to find out how these top players are enjoying the festival and discover the new sounds and techniques that they’re experimenting with these days.
Friday night’s concert was more-than-ably opened by Michael Powers of The Urban Ukulele Project. Michael’s work is hard to describe but oh-so-easy to listen to and fall in love with. His ukulele “hosts” a wealth of sounds from other instruments (even harmonica and trumpet) through the deft use of electronics and pedals. But this is no soul-less automated trickery—Michael lovingly plays each sound as if it was the actual instrument you’re hearing. For example, on a “horn” riff he held each note the length of time a trumpet player would realistically hold the tone. Michael offered a breathtaking ride from bossa nova to jazz to rock and stuff I have no name for—and it was entertaining as heck. Michael’s just-released first ukulele CD flew off the sales table after Friday night’s concert and it’s not hard to understand why.
James Hill’s playing magic followed—and it was indeed the stuff of fantasy and delight. I’ve been a fan of James’ playing over the years and, as I’ve watched his stage presence and skills increase, I was also aware on Friday night that I’ve been able to trace the transformation of a very talented young guy into a grown man who’s not afraid to share his passion for sound, wherever that passion takes him.
Lately that joy has James exploring the byways of modern folk (check out “True Love Don’t Weep,” in which he and partner Anne Davison blend their musicality with a nod to traditional tunes) as well as the more intimate, meandering pathways of sounds produced in unexpected ways—occasionally resulting in heart-soaring swoops. Friday night’s concert was one of those tuneful journeys combining skill and seemingly-serendipitous discovery (but, knowing James, I’ll bet much of that “exploring” was well-thought out ahead of time).
His performance included songs from old CDs and his newest (I particularly enjoyed the concert version of “One More Lie to Love”), several “how’d he do that?” passages demonstrating right hand ukulele intelligence that’s beyond the range of understanding (let alone mortal accomplishment) and then a short stretch of music illustrating one of James’ continuing fascinations: creating more of something than it seems initially possible.
In this case, the “more” was producing: a) not just melody; b) not just harmony and melody, but, as James noted, “Melody, harmony and percussion all at the same time. God willing.” That exercise, he further noted, is what happens when you have “too much time on your hands.” I guess that’s what makes a musician a professional—when I have extra time on my hands I tend toward plowing through old Good Housekeeping magazines from the 1940s or browsing YouTube videos…gee, I’d best re-think that spare time!
I heard that Friday night ended with various ukulele jams throughout the hotel. My eyes were itchy and my throat dry from the recycled air peppered with residual cigarette smoke so I didn’t indulge in any post-concert jamming—just a lot of talking, laughing and late-night noshing with ukulele friends (word to the wise: choose the “fruit plate” over the nachos when you order from room service at The Nugget).
Mike DaSilva and Mary shared a new “ukulele sign” that they learned and said we could all use to identify ourselves as members of the “ukulele gang.” It involves tucking the thumb behind four fingers on the right hand and shaking the hand downward in a strumming motion. Do you think if enough of us do it it’ll catch on? Next ukulele fest I see you at, waggle those strumming fingers in my direction and I’ll sign you back—‘promise!
While I’ve been to ukulele festivals with more workshops (think Southern California’s Cerritos fest), the organizers at the Tahoe area event provided plenty to choose from for beginner and intermediate players.
I enjoyed Matt Dahlberg’s “Right Hand Techniques” class, Jim D’Ville’s “Uke by Ear” workshop and BJ Soriano’s “Hawaiian Uke 101.” All three were strong instructors, sharing not only techniques but also their love for our favorite four-stringed instrument.
BJ’s class was an especially fine way to begin Saturday morning. I couldn’t help but have a perfectly upbeat day after joining dozens of folks in a morning of playing songs including “Changalang Blues” and “Menehune Beach Bum Boogie” (with some great “Hawaiian-style” stums). BJ (who was the only one I saw over the weekend wearing “slippahs”) lives in Hilo where she has an ukulele-scrapbooking studio. She teaches privately as well and next time I’m on the Big Island, I’d love to spend time with her.
Beyond workshops were more visits with vendors, an afternoon of open mic performances and a “master class” taught by James and attended by everyone at the festival, literally. And a raffle—with prizes including everything from Aquilla strings to L&L gift cards and custom ukuleles made by well-known luthiers.
Saturday night’s concert was to have featured Jake Shimabukuro but a family emergency cancelled the show. Organizers didn’t let that get them down, though. With a full house of ukulele performers on hand for Saturday they revamped plans and scheduled the FREE “All-Star Uke Jam” concert for the same time and location (and, to make it fair, refunds were available for previously-purchased Jake tickets, if desired). That meant one stage on Saturday featured a line up including (not in any particular order) James Hill, Michael Powers, Brittni Paiva, Aldrine Guerrero, Dominator, Ukulele Bartt and Matt Dahlberg. What an evening!
As a fan of anything ukulele, I can appreciate the fest’s emphasis on the “diversity” of the ukulele but I really missed hearing more Hawaiian-style playing in Reno. I’ve traditionally attended the Northern California Ukulele Festival in Hayward each spring and gotten a nice, hefty dose of Hawaiiana there but with no Hayward fest this year, I’d hoped to get a bit of that from Reno—and I was disappointed. I’d have liked to have seen Bryan Tolentino/Asa Young, the Kamaka folks, a local hula halau or something like that. With the future of Hayward in question, I’d suggest the Reno event look over the list of past performers there and reach out a friendly ukulele hand to include them in the 2011 lineup.
That’s so ukuele!
During the recent West Coast run of newly-released “Mighty Uke,” the film event’s organizers had noted, after watching one enthusiastic ukulele gathering after another, a commonality between ukulele players.
“We’d see things happen at the various screenings of the film,” said James during Friday night’s concert, “And the phrase we kept repeating was, ‘That’s so ukulele.’”
Driving home from the Tahoe Area Uke Fest (christened the Reno Tahoe Uke Fest for 2011), I’d have to echo that comment. The whole weekend in one phrase? Well, it was just “so ukulele.”
See ya next year in Reno!