If the electric guitar is the instrument of the gods (the gods of rock that is) then the ukulele is for jesters – British popular singer George Formby singing about “Fanlight Fanny the frowsy nightclub queen” or American oddball Tiny Tim warbling “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in an alarming falsetto.
So what in blue blazes was Eddie Vedder doing with a ukulele at the Apollo? Vedder is the brooding frontman with grunge survivors Pearl Jam. His vocals are gruff and earnest – the anti-Tiny Tim. He and his band write dark songs about outcasts and misfits. The idea of him with a uke is as preposterous as George Formby tackling “Stairway to Heaven”. Yet there the Pearl Jam man was, strumming away – and what’s more, doing so with charm and power.
Vedder is touring his solo album Ukulele Songs. He made it after falling in love with the instrument during a holiday in Hawaii a few years ago.
His set at the Apollo opened with him sitting at a stool with an electric guitar playing a pair of covers – one a magnificently grungy version of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” – but then out came the ukulele. “Can’t Keep” was a ukulele-d take on a Pearl Jam song, Vedder singing an anguished vocal over vigorous strumming. “Sleeping By Myself” was a tender number about heartbreak, a theme that continued with “Broken Heart”, which ended with a dissonant blast of feedback – the ukulele dragged screaming into world of the rock gods.
Vedder played the little instrument in the same brawny fashion that he sings. It worked. The combination of rugged vocals and simple chords was perfect for these lovelorn songs, creating an atmospheric dialogue between strength and vulnerability.
Other numbers saw him revert to acoustic and electric guitar. An obscure Pearl Jam B-side, “Dead Man”, was eerie alt-rock, The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” was given a Dylanesque re-reading with harmonica and a rambunctious cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Open All Night” cemented Vedder’s blue-collar kinship with the Boss.
In contrast to his angst-ridden reputation, the mood was relaxed and warm. Antique props (reel-to-reel tape recorder, upright organ, battered suitcases) created a homely ambience; so did the presence of his two young daughters as miniature roadies, carrying on his various ukuleles. Vedder’s implausible musical detour has turned out to be a triumph.