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Eddie Vedder first picked up the ukulele in a Hawaiian convenience store in the mid-1990s. The mighty little instrument – once viewed as comedic relief and a toy to many – turned out to be Pearl Jam frontman’s number one travel companion and songwriting tool. Not only has the modest cordophone been his companion in times of loneliness, it has also been his soulful muse. His latest and long-in-the-making second solo album, Ukulele Songs, is a 16-song set performed on, you guessed it, the ukulele.
Vedder said he hopes that the album would encourage listeners to step away from their phones and televisions and make some music of their own, preferably with friends. Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine, the surfer/songwriter said: “It's like painting with one color. You can really appreciate the subtleties and changes in tone.”
And his home state of Illinois agrees.
The state’s largest city, Chicago, is just 12 miles north of Vedder’s birthplace, Evanston. And it’s home to plenty of ukulele enthusiasts.
While Chicago isn’t exactly known for their uke festivals, the city is full of passionate meetups and clubs, and the Chicago Ukulele Group (CHUG) embodies exactly what Vedder is trying to communicate with his fans: The mighty little instrument can bring people together no matter the circumstance. Getting together once a month, CHUG welcomes all skill levels and ages with no pressure to play. Don’t have a uke? Don’t worry; while someone usually brings an extra anyway, this group is more about creating a community than focusing on the particulars of playing.
And Chicago’s north side is no different. Wonderwall’s Ukulele Meetup Group provides the area with once-a-month meetups on the first Tuesday of every month at The Tiki Terrace – Hawaiian Restaurant & Tiki Bar in Des Plaines. Looking for real Hawaiian hospitality? You’ll find it here. The group – founded in 2008 and led by Honolulu native, GiGi Wong-Monaco – focuses on Hawaiian music and culture, with the “Spirit of Aloha” living in each and every one of them. The club, they say, “share, respect, and live through the music” together while playing the Beatles, Tin Pan Alley, oldies, and, of course, Hawaiian.
You don’t have to bring much with you to jam with this group: Just a ukulele and a smile. All current members are required to bring their new and old songbooks, but “malihinis”, or newcomers, are given extra hardcopies. Hawaiian attire is encouraged.
If you’re more of a seasoned pro, the Chicago Ukulele Cabaret is where you want to be. The open-mic style night of music takes place every few months at Silvie’s Lounge. Each show has a theme, and anyone who can play the ukulele is invited to perform. A full backline of instruments is usually provided, so bands are welcome too – as long as they include a uke, of course.
Interested? There are a few rules to follow first: Each act may play up to three songs with a 15-minute time limit; Each act must feature the ukulele; Songs should relate to the theme of the evening; and finally, costume, skits and props are encouraged.
If you can manage all that, then you’re welcome to play at the Chicago Ukulele Cabaret.
Chicago is well and truly practicing Eddie Vedder’s passionate outlook on the ukulele and the community it brings together.
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