When I walked into the Great American Music Hall Thursday night, local Americana band P’s and Q’s was already at work onstage, playing its signature old-timey folk to a small but devout crowd of people who showed their love by hooting and hollering and stomping their feet.
The largely female quintet consisted of guitar, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, electric bass, drums, and, as an added treat on this particular night, theremin. (For those who don’t know what this nifty vintage invention is, it’s an early electronic music instrument that makes a haunting, buzzing sound by amplifying invisible electric signals that are manipulated in the air by the hands of the musician.)
Next, Uke-Hunt took us straight to the streets of Fisherman’s Wharf where the band was born. They got their start there playing for tourists, and brought the same banter and showmanship needed to attract the interest of passersby to the Great American Music Hall on Thursday night. Frontman Spike Slawson sported a green blazer and shiny, slicked-back hair. His dapper style and smooth, sexy voice captivated our attention, and it didn’t hurt that the band also used some left-field instruments, like melodica, xylophone, saxophone, harmonica, and a saw played with a fiddle bone.
But Uke-Hunt is, first and foremost, a ukulele-based cover band. And, though this sounds like a truly bad idea, it was not, and something makes me think that Slawson takes joy in slashing that notion. He is also the lead singer of punk-rock supergroup cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, and Uke-Hunt is on his bandmate Fat Mike’s record label Fat Wreck Chords, so they’ve got some additional street cred. Nevertheless, the group started out busking on the streets of S.F., forgoing that advantage.
Slawson is a big dude to play such a small instrument, and at times, he looked like a T. Rex playing a regular-sized guitar, but his passionate expressions and foot-tappin’ dance moves made up for that. Between songs, he told tales of “agitating the derelicts” at the Wharf while watching visitors get harassed by the famous “Bushman” or attacked by “cartels of angry seagulls” and shirtless homeless guys. He then turned around to put his uke to the amp, creating reverb for the intro to “Historia de un Amor,” a 1950’s song written by Carlos Eleta Almaran, which he sang flawlessly in Spanish. The group also covered new-wave classics like Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” David Bowie’s “Prettiest Star,” and “Needles & Pins” by the Ramones. Uke-Hunt closed its set with “End of the World” by The Carpenters, and a group of fans cleared out with them before the Earl Brothers took the stage.
The ten-minute stage-change with no background music was enough to prepare us for something totally different, which was the case when what looked like the Addams Family Bluegrass Band took the stage. Dressed in all black, the Earl Brothers six-piece group made choreographed rounds around their sole microphone as dimly-lit smoke billowed from behind them. Slowly, people approached the stage as if they were being summoned from the dead by the Earl Brothers’ hillbilly trance.
The Earl Brothers are based in San Francisco, but if you didn’t know better you would have thought they were from the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains. They sang songs named “Rebel Romp” and “Bad Road of Regret,” and continued to circle around one another through eerie harmonies and dark melodies, plucking away on their string instruments while harmonizing high and low-pitched vocals.
The evening was also banjo player Robert Earl Davis’ birthday, who was nearing 80-years-old (although his exact age was not revealed). Over a decade, he and the Brothers have crafted their sound which they call “gothic hillbilly,” presumably because of their black attire and dark melodies that are not typical of bluegrass music.
If you’re anything like me, a bluegrass band and a ukulele cover band wouldn’t be your first choice for a Thursday night, or any night for that matter. However, I would certainly return for another dose of the Earl Brothers and Uke-Hunt, because they put me out of my element and kept me entertained.