Grand Northern Ukulele Festival Diary - GNUF DAY 1

13 Oct 2013

Grand Northern Ukulele Festival Diary - GNUF DAY 1

Well, here I am, holed up in a hotel room in Yorkshire, early morning, head a little fuzzy (re-phrase that - head pounding somewhat) and a ukulele blogger is looking over his photographs and memories from the first day of a brand new UK ukulele festival. And what a day it was! The Grand Northern Ukulele Festival! Most commonly known as GNUF

12 October saw the official opening of the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in Pontefract, UK - a new event on the UK calendar and (at long last) a ukulele festival on a large scale for the north of England. So early Saturday morning myself and a couple of the band hit the motorways to head for Ponte not knowing quite what to expect, (although being the brainchild of the likes of Mary Agnes Krell, Tony Casey etc, we knew this had promise!)

The event was put on with Arts Council Funding in Pontefract, as a town in need of investment and, how can I put this, a ton of ukulele players descending on it out of the blue... Proceedings were mainly based in the (gorgeous) Town Hall, with the staple festival workshops elsewhere in the town. On arrival I noticed a nice addition - an open mic (or rather, an 'Open No Mic') run by the wonderful Krabbers taking place outside down from the hall to the delight of the crowd of uke fans and local shoppers.

In we go and the rush of a festival weekend hits you the moment old friends appear to say 'hi', stories of other events (and of beers the night before) start to do the rounds, recommendations come flying for me to check out some of the ukes on display on the trader stalls, whilst yet more people arrive and the cycle starts again. I'm told the festival completely sold out this year. It was certainly buzzing.

grand northern ukulele festival
the audience settle down to the performances

Some of our party moved on to take place in workshops (which included the likes of playing the blues with Manitoba Hal, Open Tunings with Les Hilton and what appeared to be a hugely popular session in which you could make (and take home to keep) your own washtub bass with Shelley and Marko of Uke Box. For me though it was time to head in to the 'Grand Bazaar' of trader stalls and goodness. Great to see some old friends and contacts such as the guys at Southern Ukulele Store, Ken and Liz at Ohana and Rob Collins at Tinguitar, but also pleasing to see some new names who were at their first ukulele festival such as Eagle Music and Matt from Saigon Guitars. There was some great stuff on display and it is all sorely tempting - particularly the hand made instruments from the likes of Rob. The uke they were all talking about stood proudly on the SUS stand - a handmade tenor from Mike DaSilva in the US. I wont be so crass as to mention prices here but a trip to his website will give you an idea!

rob collins at grand northern ukulele festival
Rob Collins of Tinguitar
Jake Smithies at Grand Northern Ukulele Festival
Jake Smithies with 'THAT' DaSilva ukulele

Soon enough it was time for the performances, and after a lovely introduction from Mary Agnes Krell, we kicked off with something a little more unusual for a festival - the screening of a ukulele film featuring Paul Moore of Ukuleles For Peace with interactive live playing on stage by Francesco Albertazzi - really enjoyable!

Next up for me was an act I have been meaning to see live, but sadly thus far had remained merely an online contact in the form of Lou Armer (also known online as Bossarocker). Her band, Lou And The Llamas had been recommended to me by a few people as an act that have a real style, and also write their own fantastic lyrics. No disappointments from me. As a blog writer one tries to be impartial about gig reviews, and that can be a little difficult sometimes when many performers on stage are also friends. I'd never met Lou before but don't mind admitting now their set of folky, jazzy, bluesy barbed songs was one of my Day 1 highlights. Check them out if you get the chance.

Next to the stage was festival favourite Phil Doleman who's set on stage was as lovely as he is to have a chat with around the festival. Sublime playing with music of all ages (even his oldies from the 17th Century!)

Phil Doleman at Grand Northern Ukulele Festival
Phil Doleman with Festival organiser Mary Agnes Krell

Phil Doleman on stage at Grand Northern Ukulele Festival
Phil joined on stage for sound effects by Eek, Tony Casey and Mary Agnes Krell

Next up was a treat for the George Formby fans on the uke circuit with a blistering performance by Mike Warren. This was also the first time I had met Mike in the flesh, and over beers until the early hours can confirm he is a bloody nice guy as well as supremely talented.

Something quite different followed in the performance piece called 'Jake Smithies and his Amazing Gramophone' - actually, make that two gramophones. You really should check out Jake - one of those guys oozing with style and a really nice bloke to boot.

Next was something else the turned out to be a festival highlight for me. I have been in touch with Shelley Rickey of Uke Box pretty much since I started this blog but had never met her before. To see her act with Marco van der Horst on the lineup was therefore a real treat. They didn't disappoint. I think Shelleys voice is sublime, and their ability to throw in a kind of spooky yet romantic sound (via musical saw and toy piano!) gives them a unique stylish sound that wowed the audience. Brilliant stuff.

uke box at grand northern ukulele festival
Shelley Rickey and Marco van der Horst of Uke Box

Splendid sets from Ukulelezaza and Yan Yalego followed then a performance from a duo who have established themselves as something of a 'must see' show on the circuit - Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave. Absolutely sensational, as they were the last time I saw them - thrilling old time jazzy numbers performed at terrific pace by a couple of very nice guys. As one of them told me outside post gig - 'we like playing fast cos we like a bit of punk you know?' - That's ok with me fella's!

ukulele uff grand northern ukulele festival
Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave

Next up - thrilled to see good friends Tim and Les of Chonkinfeckle high up the billing and, as I tend to meet up with them at events where we play together, one of the first times I have been able to enjoy their set, properly, as a spectator. The guys are now joined by Peter on keyboards who added a new layer to their sound which I thought worked well, and performed a cracking set full of humour that went down great with the crowd. A real highlight was their 'it's nothing, I've just got something in my eye' moment when they brought on a couple of local kids Joe and Myra to play their track 'You Don't See Nothing Like That' - Joe singing, and Myra on uke.

chonkinfeckle at grand northern ukulele festival
Chonkinfeckle joined by Joe Grant-Mills and Myra

Tim and Les onstage

tony casey and les hilton at Grand Northern Ukulele Festival
Festival co-organiser Tony Casey with Les Hilton

So, a day of beers flowing, chats, laughs, and now it was time for the headliner. And what a real treat. My first time seeing this guy, but I had heard nothing but good reports - Manitoba Hal Brolund. Wow. It's not often you get those performers who just take your breath away, but Hal is a full on 110% bluesman, and he just choosing to do it on the ukulele. He has a delivery that can swing anywhere between a scary sounding growl to the most delicate and pretty as was shown on his track 'Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me'. A wonderful set, and having had a chat with him earlier in the day - every bit as much the nice guy as I had been told he was. Hal had the audience enthralled, and yes, that is a custom double necked ukulele he is playing - jealous!

manitoba hal at grand northern ukulele festival
Hal, mid set

Manitoba Hal with Clarice Wokes

And then it was over (or was it). Reflections on the day, as I sit here with that fuzzy are remembering a really friendly and intimate day. Speaking to one of the organisers on the day, I explained that I was trying to find the right words to describe the 'vibe' the festival had created. I'm still thinking. Kind of came across to me as one of those best friend get togethers, yet where I didn't necessarily know everybody there, but kind of felt like I did by the end of it. The style and feel of the thing was just right, and whilst the organisers were no doubt having kittens at various points backstage, as a mere 'punter' I can inform them that from the audience the whole thing went without a hitch. A great day.

So, of course, we were not sensible, we retired..... to a hostelry..... well into the early hours with Chonkinfeckle, Lou Armer, Mike Warren and half the N'Ukes playing ukes and fuelling the next day hangovers. Huge fun, and as I said - super friendly. Roll on day two!



  1. Fantastic!!! Sounds like a great time and from the pictures you share looks like one too! It is so nice to see so many people in the pictures that it has been my great pleasure to meet on line this past year. Sure wish I could have seen it all in person! What a beautiful auditorium for performing. Wishing all more fun today. :-)

  2. Wowzer!! Thats bang on the button Baz!! I got the blues now!

  3. Thanks, Barry! It's great to hear about the festival, and I'm so glad it sounds as though it's a resounding success. Hopefully it will become an annual event!


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