I recently found out that Eddie Vedder had released a whole album on ukelele called Ukelele Songs. Not what you might think is an obvious move for the vocalist and guitarist with grunge band Pearl Jam but, with the current popularity of the uke, neither did it really surprise me.
As a fan of both things (ukelele/Pearl Jam) I was intrigued to see how the two things went together. I have since had great fun watching all sorts of odd clips and now, here I am, still in two minds about whether I approve or not.
At first listen my reaction was, he is taking himself too seriously.
If I wasn’t so silly I would now embed the video so you could watch it here but for now just go to your favourite video sharing internet site and type in ‘Eddie Vedder – Can’t Keep’.
First person to help me add videos properly gets a free Cadbury’s Flake or Fry’s Peppermint Cream (ah I’ve just managed it – it was the iPad all along – finally the PC is back from the mender and it seems to work, so just click on the link below):
When I first watched the video of Can’t Keep I took a dislike to the sweeping vistas of oceans and EV on a rock in a suit looking more like an 80s Jeff Bridges than a former rock god. I could appreciate the sound of the instrument, and the quality of the voice, but something was wrong. Maybe it was too polished.
Roll back roughly 18 years and the archives (ok, YouTube) show Eddie drunkenly ambling around festival stages or, in the majority of them, ‘climbing the shit out of’ everything. I put that in quotes as I’m almost sure I read that somewhere but, not being a serious researcher, I can’t quite tell you where. He was always up lighting rigs, then jumping high off them into the crowd, stage diving and -surfing and generally in a state of inebriation. Search just his name on the aforementioned site and you get ‘Eddie Vedder insane’, ‘Eddie Vedder drunk’, well he is a rock star.
Anyway, to get back to the ukelele or, in other words, to move onto the extreme other end of music – the ukelele has for me quite different connotations:
George Formby – along with Bobby Charlton, the first Northerner who my Dad emulated and who probably made him pick up a uke in the first place
(Photo of George Formby to follow when my image posting knowledge gets better – Jelly Tots to the first helper. Ah there, I’ve managed it again!):
Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain (review to come next week)
For me the ukelele is for family sing alongs, kids’ music clubs and local groups like the BUG (Brockley Ukelele Group) who still play hits that are shouted out by the crowd every fourth Sunday at the Amersham Arms in New Cross. I love their mashup of Rawhide but they can do poignant numbers too. There are a billion of these local fun groups across the city now, so they must be across the country, and world. I would be shocked if it is just a dense uprising in South London. In fact you don’t have to look very hard to find ukehunt (don’t read this aloud for fear of offending sensitive natures) at ukulelehunt.com (yes we spell the word differently), which is a website written by a total uke nut called Alistair Wood or Woodshed, based in the US, who wrote Ukelele for Dummies and who seems to blog every couple of days on the sole subject of the ukelele. Interesting features on here include guitar riffs you can play on the uke from artists such as Guns & Roses, White Stripes, Metallica, all the way back to Chic Le Freak (also done by BUG). You would be surprised what there is to know about this small but perfectly formed instrument.
Hold on. Typing those two letters US, have I hit on what is wrong about Eddie Vedder and his album? Is it that he is not playing the instrument ironically? I don’t think so. When I enjoy listening to uke music it is not just because it is funny, but also (and mainly) because it is beautifully played. More on this next week after seeing a live performance by the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, but I have not shelled out £20 + booking fee to go and laugh at someone who can’t play an instrument very well or sing. If I wanted that I could have gone two roads further and visited my Dad for free.
Yet I have read that EV does adore the ukelele and that he plays it on the album without irony. I do applaud this (and obviously as an American he wouldn’t have any irony). I also find that, the more times I do listen to some of his songs, and particularly Can’t Keep (a Pearl Jam song), the more they are growing on me. I am definitely not put off by the incongruity of a grunge singer playing the Hawaiian national instrument. I just still don’t know.
The ukelele appeals to all sorts of eccentrics (I can say it since I am one of us) and that is one of its beauties. I think we also like the fact that a big man playing rock music on a tiny guitar looks funny. Obviously not the case with everyone (and there is a new uketube sensation of ladies, yes ladies, playing new and interesting ukelele tunes and filming themselves for YouTube) but it’s still one of the reasons you often find a ‘big bloke’ in a uke group. Or the other reason is that they can sing and play well.
I’m definitely not a fan of music being funny for the sake of it – I don’t laugh at Victoria Wood’s songs – but as long as the music is good (and in some of these bands’ cases it is very good) I am delighted if I can have a laugh at a new version of ‘Miss Dynamite’ or Tchaikovsky on uke. Give Ukelele Songs a listen, of course, and if you have an open mind I bet you find something to enjoy, even if it is just the lovely baritone voice. But I think I will stick to my old favourite form of ukelele playing: the more modern mash ups of spaghetti westerns with hip hop tunes and the old archive of George Formby. When it comes to Pearl Jam, I like Eddie Vedder best when he is half way up a lighting mast and jumping into the arms of his adoring fans singing ‘I’m still alive’.