Brooklyn ‘Ukers’ Pay Tribute to The Beatles

Home Arts & Culture Brooklyn ‘Ukers’ Pay Tribute to The Beatles

by Daniel Roberts

At the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg Sunday, amidst an eleven-hour marathon performance of every original Beatles song with ukulele accompaniment, it was hard not to wonder: What would John Lennon have thought about this?

Entering the Bowl at any time on Sunday, customers could hear the lyrics of John, Paul, George and Ringo blasting from the restaurant section, before they could even turn left and see the giant stage. Ukulele-strumming and folksy vocals drowned out the sound of bowling pins crashing down.

A band performs at the Brooklyn Bowl Sunday, accompanied by event organizer Roger Greenawalt on the ukulele (far right). Photo courtesy of Art Bonanno.
A band performs at the Brooklyn Bowl Sunday, accompanied by event organizer Roger Greenawalt on the ukulele (far right). Photo courtesy of Justin Li.

One hundred eighty five Beatles songs were performed in one day by a collection of 60 different singers and over 80 musicians—each performance infused with ukulele. The idea came from Roger Greenawalt, a music producer and ukulele enthusiast whose discovery of the musician Ben Kweller was profiled in The New Yorker in 1997. Greenawalt planned the concert with his partner David Barratt.

The proceeds, meanwhile, are going to Yoko Ono. The event’s leaders were hazy on what exactly she might do with the money, or if she even knew about the event. “One thing we want to make clear is we’re not making fun of her,” said Art Bonanno, a producer who worked with Roger Greenawalt to organize the day. “It’s all very tongue-in-cheek.”

Still, Bonanno was quick to defend the legitimacy of this event as something more than a quirky entertainment. He was aware that many people came thinking, as he imitated it, “Beatles on ukulele, oh, ha ha.” Yet, he countered, “Then you hear some of the songs and realize this is very serious, beautiful music.”

Photographer Phillippe Noisette agreed. “It’s no joke,” he said. “The ukulele is like a perfect starting point for all the rest of the accompaniment.”

The event began officially at 11 a.m., though almost 80 performers showed up before that for an open ukulele group lesson on the stage with Greenawalt. As the day went on, Greenawalt often sat on stage with his favorite instrument, joining groups that typically do not use it in their music. In many cases, however, Greenawalt was not needed and could take a break as another ukulele player stepped in.

Ukers crowd the stage during the early morning group lesson that took place before the concert officially began. Photo courtesy of Art Bonanno.
Ukers crowd the stage during the early morning group lesson that took place before the concert officially began. Photo courtesy of Dave Cirilli, Giant Noise.

The tone of the concert oscillated between sedated and exuberant. With audience members sitting on the floor, lovingly clutching ukuleles or drinks from the bar, it felt like a Woodstock reunion—and for many of the participants, it may have been. “This is what we call 60s psychadelia,” announced the MC after one of the early song sets ended. “Robby Shampoo? Robby Shampoo, if that is your name, we need you at the front, you are next up.”

Many of the day’s musicians and audience members were local to Brooklyn, but some had made long journeys. Barbara Mansfield, for one, drove down from the Catskills. Her son, Killian Mansfield, was 16 when he died this past August of cancer. Killian was a ukulele fanatic and managed to release an album, Somewhere Else, just before he died. His mother brought her son’s best friend, Kira DiBetta, with her to the Bowl, and they sat together enjoying the atmosphere.

Mansfield said she knew about the event months in advance and wanted to come in honor of her son, who was “completely in love” with the ukulele. “If you’re a uker,” she said, “you hear about these things.” Mansfield explained that for Killian, the appeal of the ukulele “wasn’t about a cult of untouchable rock stars. It’s just an instrument that makes people happy to be playing music. People don’t get into many fights over the ukulele.” They also, it seems, do not smash them on the stage. Many of the musicians carried theirs in special cases, or showed them off proudly, holding them up from the audience to show their approval after certain songs.

The event attracted a fair share of small-time celebrities as well. Natt Wolff and Alex Wolff, who have a show on Nickelodeon called “The Naked Brothers Band,” showed up halfway through the day in matching suits and ties. “They’re like Hannah Montana to the tenth power,” noted Noisette before heading over to photograph them. “It’s a big deal that they’re here.”

The most obvious achievement of the day was of how the catalogue cut across genres. Between each of the different solo singers, large groups, and ukulele trios, audiences were given a taste of indie, funk, rock, soul, and folk. Between a singer who crooned with a more laid back tone, a la Jack Johnson, and A.L.X., a New York singer who performed “Back in the U.S.S.R” wearing a red leather jacket and tight pants, shaking his hips like Rod Stewart, the bands and singers were certainly eclectic.

Brooklyn was well represented. Anna Rose, who fronts a local band by the same name, was elated to be participating. She and her four band members were perfectly happy to stand and wait nearly six hours just to take the stage for two songs. “Its one of those things,” said Rose, “you don’t want to touch The Beatles with a ten-foot pole, but the uke is a very cool, underused instrument in pop music today. We don’t always use the uke, but we’re happy to mix it up, and getting an assignment like this, trying out a new arrangement, that’s a big appeal for us.”

Just after finishing a punchy cover of “Rocky Raccoon,” Tamar Kamin, of the band Van Allen Belt, grabbed the microphone. “You know,” she told the crowd, “of all the bowling alleys I’ve played today, this one is by far the most attentive.”

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