Sweeney uncorks the ukulele
“I was a guitar-slinger and one day went to get guitar strings and picks and came back with a ukulele and a chord chart,” he says. “It changed my life.”
People have the wrong idea about the ukulele, he says, but they are learning it’s a lot more than Tiny Tim or an old Arthur Godfrey radio bit. Turns out the diminutive stringed instrument with its distinctive light sound offers an interesting and long underused complement to the human voice.
Sweeney will be the headline performer at the Coffeehouse at the Mews, 429 Commercial St., Provincetown, at 8 p.m. on Monday. Joining him at the Mews is bass player Ed Banks. Sweeney is also taking part in the Snow Library musical demonstration at 10 a.m. on Saturday (Main Street, Orleans) and will perform at the SeaDog Saloon, 4100 Route 6, North Eastham, from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day.
Although it looks like a tiny guitar, the ukulele is quite different. It has only four strings, uses a different tuning and, unless one uses the Canadian trick of tuning to a low G for the top string, lacks much of a bass presence. But the notes somehow weave in and around the human voice without competing with it like big-boned instruments such as electric guitars.
“I realized how compatible it was with my voice and how it reminded me of the old songs I used to hear my dad sing around the house,” Sweeney says. “It sounds corny but the sound is almost spiritual. It’s the sweetest little instrument.”
He says it is so different from the guitar, his instrument of choice for most of his life. He loves the timbre, the way it sounds and how one plays it. And he doesn’t mind getting teased for switching from a big axe to a tiny hatchet.
“Sarah Burrill asked me, how can you play a seventh chord with only four strings,” he says, adding that he has worked out ways to play very complex musical combinations on the uke. “I don’t treat it like a novelty, I treat it seriously.”
Mostly, he says, it just never fails to bring him joy when he picks it up and tucks into a song. “You can’t not smile when someone is playing the ukulele,” he says before heading off into a history lesson.
“This is the third wave of popularity for the uke. Its heyday was in the ’20s and most people have an image of flappers in raccoon coats, megaphones and somebody playing the ukulele. They are not wrong. It was the most popular instrument in the U.S. during that time. Then, after WW II, there was Arthur Godfrey and his radio show.”
Which, he says, brings us to the current day.
“Rolling Stone had a tribute to George Harrison when he died,” he says. “In one article, Tom Petty is quoted as saying he’d go visit George and George would give him a ukulele and he [Tom] would tell him he had given him one the last time he was there. Ah, George would say, but this one is better.”
That got Sweeney looking into the Beatles-ukulele connection. He found photos of George, John and Paul playing ukes.
“I’m convinced that George wrote some of his biggest songs on the ukulele. Songs like ‘Here Comes the Sun.’”
Now there is a huge resurgence, a veritable wave of ukulele popularity, and Sweeney is hanging 10 on the crest. He plays around the Cape, appeared at Ukulele Noir in Boston and is the only North American invited to play in the European Ukulele Festival in Gross-Umstadt, Germany, in August.
“I have an absolute love affair with it,” he says. “Here in midlife I found this thing I have an absolute passion for. I am so happy. People say to me all the time, hey, you are having too much fun up there. I am.”
When he tunes up and gets down at the Mews, expect a lot of sweet music from the American Songbook with more than a few surprises thrown in. He does a great version of the Beatles’ “Maybe I’m Amazed” on his new CD, “New Uke State of Mind.”
And he’s willing to give almost anything a go.
“I love to mix it up, from Duke Ellington to ‘Pinball Wizard.’”
You might even hear “Stairway to Heaven."
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