‘One big night, one little instrument’: Uke Fest enters its sixth year

The Current’s Jay Gabler practices his uke technique. (Colleen Cowie/MPR)

Uke Fest is celebrating its sixth year, and marking its first year at the Hook and Ladder, this Saturday. The event, organized by local singer-songwriter Katy Vernon, will kick off at 6:30 p.m. with an open mic sponsored by the Minnesota Ukulele Army, followed by performances from 17 different local musicians starting at 7:30.

The first Uke Fest took place in 2012 at Aster Café, featuring performances from a handful of local musicians, including Vernon. After the success of the first Uke Fest, Vernon decided to take up the project the next year, and she has organized it ever since.

Vernon’s goal has always been to make Uke Fest a community event. “When I took it on, I felt like it was very important to make it definitely something bigger than myself,” she said.

Proceeds will benefit two local nonprofits: Arc Greater Twin Cities and the Minnesota Music Coalition. In Uke Fest’s second year, Vernon had the idea to partner with Arc Greater Twin Cities, an organization that raises money for families dealing with disabilities. Every year at Uke Fest she performs the song “Peter,” which she wrote about her brother who has cerebral palsy. Since last year, Vernon has also donated proceeds from the event to the Minnesota Music Coalition.

This year’s diverse lineup features 17 musicians, including Vernon, each performing 15-minute sets. (It’s a busy weekend for Vernon, who also has a Friday show at the Parkway Theater.) “Every year I just want variety,” Vernon said. Some of this year’s performers include McNally Smith College of Music student and ukulele virtuoso Marlowe Teichman; indie musician Mary Bue; and electronic artist Christian Erickson, diversifying his palette.

Vernon strives to curate a unique mix of genres, allowing the audience to hear some of their favorite local performers in a completely new context. “It’s almost like improv, in a way — it’s like you’re seeing people slightly out of their element, but I think that that it gives it a real edge and makes it fun to watch.”

This is the first year that Uke Fest will be held at the Hook and Ladder in Minneapolis. In previous years, the event has taken place at Aster Café and Vieux Carré, and has frequently sold-out these smaller venues. Vernon is excited about the new space, which will accommodate the event’s growing audience.

Vernon describes Uke Fest’s audience as similar to a “CD release crowd,” meaning that the event draws a variety of people from performers’ families and friends, to fellow musicians and community members. Even the night’s bill features a wide range of performers, from high school students to musicians in their 60s.

Uke Fest celebrates not only the versatility of the ukulele, but also its ability to bring people together. “There’s something about the instrument that just really taps into people’s hearts,” Vernon said. Vernon explained that because each set is only 15 minutes long, the musicians feel comfortable to be vulnerable and take risks. “It’s such a forgiving audience,” she said.

The ukulele has played a pivotal role in Vernon’s career, helping her overcome writer’s block and serving as a source of inspiration for her music. This past year, Vernon performed at two ukulele festivals in the UK. She says this experience gave her insight into Uke Fest and allowed her to grow as an organizer. In future years, Vernon envisions expanding the event, but for now, she’s happy with Uke Fest’s trajectory. “It really isn’t even a festival,” she said, “it’s just a celebration, basically of the instrument.”

Colleen Cowie is a student at Macalester College. She hosts the show Locally Sourced on WMCN.

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