Greg Hawkes and his trio are proof that in the right hands, with the right material, an evening of ukulele is a marvelous showcase for the pure beauty of great songwriting and the virtuosic ability to wring exquisite chords and blissful harmonics from four strings on a stubby fretboard.
Greg Hawkes Ukulele Trio. At Club Passim, Cambridge, MA, August 5.
By Jason M. Rubin
The ukulele, that toyish homunculus of a stringed instrument that brings forth memories of Tiny Tim and perhaps Don Ho, has been enjoyed a new wave of popularity over the last decade, fueled in part by the widely shared video of Jake Shimabukuro performing “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” on the four-stringed axe. That song was composed by George Harrison, who himself was a uke collector though he never played the instrument on a Beatles recording.
It was about a decade ago that someone intimately connected with the term “new wave” also got into the instrument. That was Greg Hawkes, co-founder and keyboardist for the breakout Boston band The Cars. Though he’d had a uke as a kid, Hawkes made his name and his fame starting in 1978 playing spiky or spacy synthesizer parts on such Cars hits as “Just What I Needed,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Let’s Go,” and “Magic.” But on Valentine’s Day about 11 years ago, Hawkes’ wife gave him a uke as a present, and he found he couldn’t put it down.”
“I was charmed,” he said, “and I started playing it all the time.” Soon he was writing songs on it. Having contributed a uke cover of “Eleanor Rigby” on a compilation album, it was suggested that he record an entire album of Beatle covers using only ukuleles. That album, The Beatles Uke, was released in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Hawkes formed a trio with local players Tim Mann and Greg Allison. Though no new recordings have yet emerged, the trio plays around occasionally, such as the highly entertaining show I witnessed at Club Passim in Cambridge.
Hawkes played a short solo set heavy on uke reworkings of Cars tunes. Though Hawkes was never a featured vocalist in the band, his folksy singing and joyful stage demeanor made each tune a little jewel. Opening with “Just What I Needed,” Hawkes remarked that the first time he played Passim was as part of comedian Martin Mull’s band and proceeded to play a Mull composition, “Let’s Act Normal For a Change.” He also played a Flo and Eddie tune and a couple of originals—one of which, “Here Comes Ditto,” is a classic in the making, a stunning commentary on modern life.
Hawkes then introduced Mann and Allison for a tour of Beatles numbers (most of which, like on the CD, were instrumental, though “Yellow Submarine” became an audience sing-along), an impressive version of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” (with vocals, which made it all the more impressive given none of the trio has much of an upper register in their voices), a couple more Cars songs (including the beautiful ballad “Drive”), and a Mann original. The concert ended with a version of “Happy Trails,” dedicated to Allison, who is moving to Virginia to become a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments).
Following the gig, Hawkes confirmed there was no significant tour planned; a petition movement might be called for, therefore, as this is no novelty act. Hawkes and his trio are proof that in the right hands, with the right material, an evening of ukulele is a marvelous showcase for the pure beauty of great songwriting and the virtuosic ability to wring exquisite chords and blissful harmonics from four strings on a stubby fretboard. Even if they go no further than Boston or the northeast, they warrant a faithful following.