I hate to call this a review, because I hardly have the credentials to do such a thing. What I can do is relate my experience as a regular Joe/ukulele enthusiast; the everyman, enjoying a few drinks at the local dive bar. I can’t say I’m unbiased though, because I already like the guy simply because he’s rocking the ukulele and playing the kind of songs you can’t help but sing along to. But, review I will. My opinion is as useless as the rest, so let’s get on with it.
Spoiler alert: The show was great. For those of you with short attention spans, you’re welcome. If you want the nitty gritty, let’s hit the bar.
The Blue Fox is a small, dimly-lit hole in the wall tucked into the far end of a strip mall whose tenants run the gamut from restaurants to medical facilities. A pool table stays perpetually occupied in the back while a cabinet of “Big Buck Hunter” quietly begs for your attention with the allure of killing mammalian mammoths with an orange toy shotgun so you can get your blood stained mitts on a giant rack. This is the kind of establishment that gets 4 out of 5 stars, from a whopping 13 reviews on Yelp. Needless to say, it’s classy, and fun, and THE perfect venue to see a Ukulele Russ show, although I’m sure he could point you to a better place in Fairbanks.
There couldn’t have been more than 50 of us in attendance, staff included, and I’m being generous with the numbers here. It felt like a private show with, as he states in his rendition of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, “one of the top 150 ukulele players in the world” (he throws in the caveat “if I practiced really hard”). And maybe it’s just the afterglow of the experience, or me trying to justify the four hours of sleep and slightly irritated stomach from the night’s overindulgences, but I think he’s being modest with his personal ranking. I’d put that number much higher (please refer to the first paragraph regarding my credentials/expertise).
The show started around 10 PM, January 30, with a cover of Kiss by Prince and continued until 2 AM. For the mathematically challenged, that’s four hours of entertaining drunk bar patrons, which Ukulele Russ accomplishes effortlessly. I took more breaks than he did and all I did was drink beer and eat chicken fingers.
His repertoire is vast, consisting of covers ranging from “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins (beatboxing included) to the “Fraggle Rock” theme song. He frequently asked the crowd if they had any requests, and his ability to fulfill those requests only increases the list of songs you can expect to hear at a Ukulele Russ performance. It’s like he got ahold of a Karaoke book and thought “I can play those… all of them”. In the course of four hours, he played Robert Palmer, Lionel Richie, Tool, Limp Bizkit, Fugees, Salt N Pepa, Stone Temple Pilots, Jim Croce, Lynard Skynard, Garth Brooks, Otis Redding… the list goes on and on. We also had the pleasure of singing along to theme songs for “Reading Rainbow”, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, and “The Muppet Show” (he even performed “The Rainbow Connection” as Kermit the Frog). Throw in some Weird Al-esque versions of popular songs and a few original tunes by Russ himself, and I was left wondering why the bar was so empty. Not only is Ukulele Russ a great musician and performer, but his schtick is perfectly suited for the venue in which he performed. He engaged the audience, talked to the crowd, cracked jokes and even managed to diffuse an obnoxious drunk. He’s energetic, funny and genuinely enjoyable.
He kept it lighthearted and fun with the popular covers, but seemed hesitant to pull out the original music. He even seemed to apologize for playing his title track “Nobody Cares” from his upcoming album, stating “that’s as depressing as it’s going to get tonight”. Depressing it was not, and besides, I also heard him play “The Thunder Rolls” by Garth Brooks.
There’s a sense of nostalgia to the set that’s especially appealing to this 33-year-old man (we’re talking about me now) spending a rare night out at a bar knowing full well he’ll be awake before 8 AM trying to keep up with his energetic 8-month-old son.
Ukulele Russ strikes me as the kind of guy who really loves music, especially popular music from the 80’s and 90’s; music steeped in memories from younger days when we were so much cooler. And while it’s nice to think fondly on the past, there are some pretty great things happening right now, and those upcoming songs from “Nobody Cares” might fall into that category. Bring them out and let them shine and you might be surprised to find that we actually do care.