Another year another ukulele festival...... Hang on, that sounds dismissive, that's not what I meant. For anyone who has ever been to a GNUF event before, this is not just another ukulele festival, it's a return to what I think is the best ukulele festival there is. So, eight months later, in a new earlier calendar slot, my third Grand Northern Ukulele Festival Diary.
Still in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, this year GNUF once again looked to develop itself further. 2014 was a huge event on the worlds ukulele calendar, headlined as it was by the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain, but if there is one thing I have learned in the last few years about these organisers it's this. They DON'T rest on their laurels. They wanted to build further on 2014 to create another world class event, and I think they did just that. Heck, I won't even go with the usual pattern of building things up for the reader in order to give you the final, cheesy knockout punch that tells you what I thought. I'll say it right away. This was the best yet. By far.
This will be a long blog post, go grab yourself a coffee and read at your leisure!
2015 saw the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival back in Huddersfield in the UK with a bigger festival in terms of acts but in a new, on the face of it smaller, venue. Now that may come across like some sort of Doctor Who magic, but it comes down to a clever new choice of venue. This time, and for the first time for GNUF, we had true multiple performance stages. Like 2014, we had a main stage and a fringe stage (once again in a SUPERB record store in Huddersfield called Vinyl Tap) but this time we had a third. Yes, a three stage ukulele festival, allowing more acts and more choice for the punters.
Multiple stages may at first make you think 'hang on, I can't possibly see everything', and that is true. But think about it, all the great music festivals have multiple stages and they do so for good reason. Partly it allows more acts to get an opportunity to play, but it also allows the audience to do a bit of work selecting what they want to watch. This is a GOOD thing. Choice an variety are good (note, that word 'variety' is going to become a theme in this diary). No festival can provide for every taste, and for me the answer to that is not simply to fill a Main stage with headliners, but the sensible choice is to provide more breadth and more variety (told you).
Another thing to bear in mind here. Because I could not be in two places at once, I had to pick the acts I wanted to see and therefore can't talk about every performer in this blog. Nothing personal - just matter of fact. There were some I was gutted to miss on stage, but by missing them I would have been gutted to miss others. So apologies here to Professor Pete and Doctor Dick, Adam Franklin, The Toots, Jamie Cooper, Michael Shepherd, Robin Evans, Feckless and Fuddle and all the Fringe performers for having to miss you. Heck, I even had to miss my dear pals Chonkinfeckle which tells you everything.
And with that clumsy and overly long introduction out of the way, on with the diary.
....and things start badly. Not festival related, but in a horrific repeat of 2014, what would ordinarily be a 1 hour 30 minute journey for me, in reality takes my wife and I FOUR hours to make. It would seem that the UK Government roadworks programme for 22 May 2015 had been deliberately adjusted to inconvenience me in the biggest way possible. Those who follow me on Facebook will recall the frustrated outpourings of a man who HATES motorway delays.. but no matter, we arrived (late) safe and sound.
Friday at GNUF does form part of the programme of events. More informally I guess, but it's more than just a 'turn up at the pub' kind of night.
And then we need some ukulele. Well, I say 'need some ukulele' what Friday at GNUF really means to me is meeting up with old friends, making new ones, and doing that weirdest of things what wouldn't have happened 'back in the day' - Meeting up with people you know on social media but haven't met as yet.
That's always a weird one that comes stained with a certain amount of worry ( I must say). You see, we all talk to people from all around the world on social media but, 'sure, he sounds great, she is wonderful'. But you always have a twinge of worry / doubt that when you actually meet them it will all be horrible. For 2015, I knew the vast majority of the performers, but there were some pretty big names on this bill that I hadn't as yet met. You know, the Craig Chee, Mike Hind, Aaron and Nicole Keims of this world. Frightening huh? Without wishing to fall back on the ukulele code that some uke players live by that 'all ukulele players are WONDERFUL because it's such a happy instrument', I am pleased to say that this Friday I met some of the nicest people I know. And that's not just blowing smoke where the sun don't shine - without exception, ALL really nice people.
So yes, Friday was still low key, but I arrive at a PACKED Head Of Steam Pub next to Huddersfield Station to find an Mike Hind entertaining a crowd in a way that I have learned lately he is SO good at. The pub is shoulder to shoulder, and I struggle to get in. We buy some drinks and listen to Mike through the window. (He is good, he won't mind). A quick word on that, GNUF in 2014 used the same pub but I felt, on looking back, that the performance side was more secondary and it really was a case of it being full of uke players strumming from club song books. That's cool, but I personally thought it needed acts on from the off. I've learned this weekend (as if I didn't know it before) that Mike Hind should be top of that list..
I digress. I am outside listening... Hey, there's Sarah! - so great to see Sarah Maisel again. I've not seen here since I was in Cheltenham some years before, but at that time she was not yet to become engaged to marry one Mr Craig Chee, who was also coming to the festival to perform.
What a nice guy! It kind of figures I suppose. Heck, I KNEW Sarah was a nice person from the first time I met her so why should she hook up with anything less. Here's the thing with Craig / Social media, I'll break it down into simple parts. 1. Hi Craig. 2. Big Hug. 3. Big Smiles 4. Craig takes your photograph..... Craig likes cameras. I like cameras. Good times!
And if the pub wasn't for you, Krabbers was running another open mic session in a local cafe which I am told was a blast!
So without wishing to gloss over the rest ( beer was involved, In reality it became blurry, not glossy), but many, many friends to be met and chatted with then back to the hotel for more chat, strumming and lots of laughs. A GREAT night, that's all that needs to sum this up.
Without going in to too many details, this was a fairly fresh faced start for me for once. Friday was indeed a late one, but not quite as debilitating as 2014! Down to the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (the new venue) for the start. A great new venue in my opinion with a fabulous main stage, multiple performance spaces, and courtyard in front in which to congregate, a bar ( TICK!) a great coffee shop (TICK!) and a great feel. A hello to the organising team and more hellos to the performers in the green room then back for some chats to the stall holders in the marketplace. I like arriving early for some chats before the throng arrive. Not picking out favourites but was great to see the teams from Omega Music and Moselele again, as well as seeing Matt Cohen from Noah with a stall (all, I think, long term supporters of GNUF). The Fusion bags team were also back, and this year they had really thrown themselves behind the festival, not only sponsoring artists, but also having a stage named after them.
The Workshops open, and there was real breadth here again. I am not a big fan of workshop programmes that are just about 'how to play.' . Those workshops will always be popular and these were on offer from the likes of Manitoba Hal Brolund, Phil Doleman, Les Hilton, Ben Rouse, Adam Franklin and more, but I like a bit of variety (that word again..). So we also had workshops in which you could build instruments and amplifiers led by Rob Collins as well as an inspired workshop led by the Mother Ukers. Following on from their 2014 workshop in which you could record a song with them, this year you could write a song with them. You heard that right. A workshop in which the group get together to write a song, and then perform it. As I say, inspired.
|Workshop with Manitoba Hal|
The fringe stage opens at Vinyl Tap, hosted by Mike Hind, and with that my first confession. I didn't have the time to get down there for it like I did last time. I have however taken some thoughts from some people who's views I respect, and the feedback could be best summarised as AWESOME. For me though, with lunch to fit in, before I know it the main stage opens.
A word from the outset on the main stage that I left to the end last year. Many people may not understand the importance of a good stage compere to keep things moving, but yet again I was delighted to see Burlesque legend Heidi Bang Tidy brought back to host the stage. She has given me more laughs this weekend than anyone else and did a stellar job keeping the audience entertained and on their toes throughout. Such a nice person too.
|Heidi Bang Tidy|
First up, Eek and Elsie. I have seen Eek The Clown (Martyn Cooper) at ukulele festivals for the last few years and shared many, many laughs with him and Elsie (Kate Cooper) but had never actually seen them perform on stage. Just brilliant though. This pair are naturally funny and play off each other impeccably. The tap dancing routine still has me giggling.
|Eek and Elsie|
Next up - one of my first real highlights and a man I have been longing to meet as Mike Hind takes to the stage with Ben Rouse on bass. Mike is a truly lovely man, and boy, what a voice. The stage is made for him and the audience could see that. Being joined by Ben was inspired (part of what has been dubbed their 'Bromance Tour', the upright bass complimented the music perfectly. A real treat this one.
|Mike Hind and Ben Rouse|
Moving on and a performer I have known for some years and I find it mesmerising to watch how he develops. I first saw Michael Adcock at a very young age and was astounding at his playing, but it's been a bigger pleasure over the years to watch how he has blossomed into a performer who really now commands the stage. In his white tuxedo he looks the part, but that playing is just something else. This guy can go on to great things (if being on the main stage at GNUF is not great enough!).
Next were a new band for me in Edward Alice from Cambridge. More young players and one of those bands that make you think, 'I wish I had been in a band like that when I was younger'. Great, tight, exciting set.
Now for a change and a move downstairs to the Fusion Stage and more Eek The Clown, but this time with his full band, The No Direction Hot Boys, joined on bass by Ben Rouse. This band were originally members of Sam Browns Ukulele Club, and now bill themselves as 'The Worlds Worst Boy Band'. This was a truly funny set. Their 'Wheels On The Bus' in the style of Kraftwerk was inspired, as was their Space Oddity, complete with Stylophone solo and Mike Holland dressed as a spaceman. Yes, that happened.
|No Direction Hot Boys|
Was then delighted to see Liam Capper-Starr perform for the first time. He's a fine player with a nice touch on the ukulele. A delicate and moving set and his song 'The Gin Waltz' was killer.
Now for more variety with an act that involved no ukulele but had tears rolling down my face. Silent clown Kiki Lovechild bringing back an old music hall tradition called 'Chapeaugraphy'. Armed with a ring of felt, he fashions 20 different characters in four minutes by use of hats. Confused? Don't be, just make sure you go and see Kiki if you can.
Now the place has really filled up for the simple reason that two performers are about to perform acts that really fit in the 'Players player' category. First up the wonderful Krabbers. I've seen him perform a few times including at my own festival and just adore the tone of the mans voice. His songwriting is touching, amusing and skilled and I could genuinely listen to Mike for hours. Delighted to see Les Hilton from Chonkinfeckle join him on harmonica for his original, Songs Of Praise.
|Krabbers joined by Les Hilton on harmonica|
And next up, my standout highlight of the festival. Ian Emmerson has been off the stage for some time now. Too long in my view and when I first heard he was lined up for GNUF 2015, I know I was not the only ukulele fan who was thrilled. In a set that led to the first (and one of the only) standing ovations of the festival Ian did what he does best. Sublime playing with style and feeling coupled with his superb lyrical skills in a set of originals that wowed us all. His song 'Getting On My Nerves' is a standout for me, but a song like 'Somewhere' (which he bills as the saddest song he has written) really shows what a talented guy he is. So glad to see him performing again and I hope he continues.
|Ian Emmerson makes his return|
And with that, it's time for some food. I only tell you that in order that I can advise my trans-Atlantic readers that we did indeed go for a #CheekyNandos. Another quick word of thanks here to Mim from Mim's Ukes who was running a fantastic open mic stage in the Theatre Courtyard whilst a lot of this was going on. She worked so hard over the weekend and is the best host and compere you could ask for!
Then back to the re-opening of the main stage with a lovely set from Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee. I've seen Sarah perform before but not with Craig and I thought the connection between the two of them was so clear on stage. They look like they are enjoying it and that tells you everything about what they have going on. Then add in the fact they were joined on stage by Ben Rouse on bass and Aaron Keim and you have an envious mix of performers.
|Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee joined by Ben Rouse|
Next up, a couple of lovely pals who I have seen perform loads of times now and another act the festival audience were keen to see. The Mersey Belles. They just sound better and better each time I see them and their vocal harmonies work SO well together. Glamour by the bucketload and a great connection with their audience. Oh, and thanks for my birthday card Nancy and Pearl!
|The Mersey Belles|
Next up, one of the hardest working players I saw at this festival and someone who had already been on stage as a guest for many other acts in Ben Rouse. Ben fits into that 'how is he even doing that' sort of players with a blistering high octane performance that leaves the crowd open mouthed. That he was in such demand to play with others all weekend I think tells you what you need to know. Great musician. Ben was also telling me about his workshop earlier in the day on ukulele bass playing. 25 U Basses in one room - now there is a sound I would like to hear!
We move on to another pal in the form of Canadian Bluesman Manitoba Hal Brolund. I've seen Hal perform before but I thought that this years performance was the best I have seen from him. I don't know who he is channelling on his blues numbers, but it's someone special. Blues ukulele playing like nobody else I know of, and a true blues vocal. Legendary.
Kiki Lovechild then returns to the stage with his second performance of the weekend. A sublimely moving routine about a butterfly collector which ends with clouds of butterflies flying in the air above him. I know there were people in the audience with tears in their eyes by the end. Now that is some clowning.
Then on to the final act and another standout highlight for me. An act I have wanted to see for some time, Aaron and Nicole Keim perform as The Quiet American. Traditional American folk tunes delivered in the traditional style, this was another of those acts I could listen to for hours. Just great in every way. Truly nice people too. The night ended with a mass performance on the main stage, led by Aaron singing 'My Bucket's Got A Hole In It' complete with some solo performances from other performers. A great end to the day.
|The Quiet American|
|The finale on day one|
But of course, being a festival, things don't end there. Back to the hotel for more fun, laughter and more music. Nice work by The Toots and The Mother Ukers entertaining us into the wee small hours.
A lazier start to the day, then back to the Lawrence Batley Theatre for more fun. For others, it was a bright and early start as the workshop programme was packed during the morning led by the likes of Ukulelezaza, Adam Franklin, Craig Chee and Phil Doleman. Something for everybody really.
First up on the main stage, another act I have known for a while and two people I am pleased to call friends. Tim Smithies and Jake The Shake are 'Dead Mans Uke' and I can tell them that they delivered the best performance I have yet seen from them. Funny, stylish, dirty (the music not the people) it was just the start the Sunday needed. And Jake, will you stop being so damn cool, it's not fair.
|Tim and Jake Smithies - Dead Mans Uke|
Next, a short break from the billed programme to hear a performance from a local school ukulele group (The Spen Valley Troubadours) in their first major performance (and what a way to start your performances!). They were brilliant! Great vocals and well rehearsed too. It's worth noting the massive amount of outreach work that goes along with GNUF. This is not just a festival that focusses on the weekend alone.
|Spen Valley Troubadours|
Next up a real treat for fans of the Formby Style with a superb performance from Mike Warren. Mike really is one of the very best examples of this style of ukulele playing and went down really well with the audience. He's got a great rapport with the crowd too, doesn't take himself too seriously and is another truly nice bloke.
Now I don't like picking favourites but I think that being a blogger / reviewer that I have to. I've told you some of my highlights and told you about my standout performance. Well the next one came a close second. One of the friendliest performers you can meet, Francesco Albertazzi from Italy, joined by his pianist Andrea Negruzzo delivered one of the prettiest sets of music I heard all weekend. A set I couldn't take my eyes off really and crowned for me by his dedication to his friend and ukulele player Marko Van Der Horst who was lost to the world in 2014. Lump in the throat time. I adored this set Francesco.
Before our day two headliner, a bit of fun on the main stage with the Got A Ukulele Main Stage Mashup - a slot designed to bring players together doing things you might not expect. We had a great duo performance from Mike Warran and Rik McCormick singing 'Who The Hell's George Formby', Chonkinfeckle singing rock and roll with Andi Cooke on lead vocals and a great version of 'They're Red Hot' performed by Phil Doleman and Manitoba Hal.
|Chonkinfeckle with Andi Cooke|
And finally for me, a welcome return to GNUF from a standout performer in Zoë Bestel. She wowed the audience in 2014, and did so again this year. She really does have one of those truly GREAT voices that is capable of sending a shiver down the spine. Kind of gets in to the very heart of you. A real highlight yet again and she is only 17... Life just isn't fair...
The festival then rolled on to a Gala Concert in the Town Hall, the venue for GNUF 2014 featuring many of the artists from the weekend gone, but also performances from Ukulelezaza and the mighty Mother Ukers. For this blogger though I was gutted to have to leave before all that fun started (a combination of child minding a dog minding running out), but from the reports I was reading last night, it was an excellent evening.
After all that, I have looked back at this post and realised how gushing it is.. And that is for a simple reason. It was damn good. As a writer / blogger / critic, one would think that we have a duty to be fair and talk about the good as well as the bad. Damn right. We do. And this is where I struggle. You see, I am honestly finding it incredibly hard to find fault with GNUF 2015. I hate to think that just comes across as sycophancy, but please - if you don't want to believe me ( and, don't forget I seem to have built a reputation in speaking my mind on this blog...) just ask someone who was there. If they had an issue, please drill down and find out if that was a genuine concern or just the sort of thing that would have made easy prey for Heidi Bang Tidy... Honestly - it was brilliant.
The GNUF team just seem to have found a great recipe. It's not just about ukulele (though of course that is the backbone) it's about music and entertainment generally in all forms. It's about friends getting together and great company. It's about fun.
A huge well done to Mary Agnes Krell and all of team GNUF!
In short summary - what matters to me
1. Great artists
Ticks in the right boxes on all three. Another one please!
© Barry Maz