Belfast celebration turns 5

The little uke (fest) that could

By Dagney C. Ernest | May 30, 2018
Artwork by: Nora Flanagan A promotional video for the 2018 Belfast Ukulele Festival puts the event’s harborside location in the spotlight.

Belfast — Just as the popularity of ukulele has grown, the Midcoast’s annual celebration — this year is the fifth — has, too.

“It’s bigger and better, new and improved, and still just $5,” said Jeff Weinberger, part of Waldo County’s Midcoast Ukes strumming group and a festival organizer.

For the first time, the Belfast Ukulele Festival will have a night-before event at a different location. Friday evening, June 1, uke enthusiasts can gather at the Searsport Shores Ocean Campground ... and even spend the night.

“They have a little patch of land you can pitch a tent on; if you want to pull up your RV and hook up, you can do that; or sleep in a bunkhouse or a cabin or a cottage, you can do that too,” Weinberger said. “It's a beautiful campground right on Penobscot Bay.”

Weinberger, who has taught team-building uke workshops for the Searsport Shores staff, approached owners Steve and Astrig Tanguay about partnering with the uke fest. They agreed to offer discounted rates for uke fest campers, as well as host a pizza/potluck party and jam around the campfire.

“Gerald Ross, the headliner, myself and Frets Halligan, we're all going to get together, and a bunch of people have signed up. We’re going to have both a slow jam group and a fast jam group, kind of like they do for old-time music,” Weinberger said. “So now it's more of a weekend-long festival.”

The Friday evening events begin at 6 p.m. and are free, with donations for the fest gladly accepted. In order to ensure enough food, chairs and parking, RSVP is requested at midcoastukes.org.

Saturday, June 2, is festival day itself, at another beautiful spot on the water: Belfast’s Steamboat Landing Park. The Belfast Ukulele Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is indeed $5, free for children younger than 13 this year, for a full day of music and more.

“So we're encouraging more young people [to attend] and Frets Halligan's beginner ukulele workshop is no-charge, too,” said Weinberger. “We want to spread the word not just amongst the ukulele cult, but try to spread it out to the greater community.”

Ross will lead two workshops and Weinberger another in the Belfast Boathouse; their hour-long workshops cost $15. Space is limited in all four workshops, so preregistration via the Midcoast Ukes website is a must. Meanwhile, outside, there will be strumming all day long in the gazebo and under the big white tent. More than a dozen community strumming groups will play, including Knox County’s Ukes Rock and the host group. Weinberger said the caliber of the groups increases each year, as strummers get experience under their straps and acquire some polish.

“And some of them are coming from a really long ways away, from places like Dexter and Oxford Hills and way-up-there-in-Maine places,” he said.

The strumming groups play all day long, breaking at 2:30 p.m. for Ross’ hour-long main stage performance. The fest likes to mix up styles in its headliners, and Ross will bring swing to the fifth annual Uke Fest.

“He's fabulous! A great jazz player on ukulele, great swing, and he does some good Latin stuff,” Weinberger said.

Ross in fact is a multi-instrumentalist who also plays guitar, dobro and Hawaiian lap steel. He plays and teaches at all the big festivals, Weinberger said, and is a founder of New York’s Ashokan Music & Dance Camps’ Uke Fest. Comfortable with just about every type of “roots” music there is, Ross has performed in concert with Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, Doc Watson, Johnny Gimble, Riders In The Sky, Brownie McGhee and many others. He appears in the award-winning documentary “The Mighty Uke” and performed many times on “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Ross follows previous fest headliners Stuart Fuchs and Rachel Manke; Victoria Fox and Ben Hassenger; John Hicks; and “Dos Eckies” Joel Eckhaus and Kris Eckhardt in demonstrating the wide variety of intricate ways the so-simple-anyone-can-play-it instrument can be played — and, as he is known to say, that “the ukulele is not a toy!”

The Belfast Ukulele Festival achieved a milestone last year in that it ended up in the black for the first time … which means this year’s fest is partially self-funded. In the past, the city of Belfast and its Parks and Recreation Department, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and Our Town Belfast were major sponsors.

“They're all still involved, but less than in the past,” Weinberger said. “The uke fest is trying to be independent and get so that we are totally self-funded. This is our first year attempting that.”

Attendance has grown over the years; Weinberger said the committee has gotten inquiries from as far away as the West Coast and Alaska; and the Midwest, as well as up and down the Atlantic seaboard. And the fest’s location right on the water is clearly part of the draw.

“It's really beautiful, the setting, you know, it's just so picturesque and sailboats going by. I think that has a lot to do with why it's grown, as well as how fun it is to strum ukuleles with a bunch of other people and to learn in the workshop situations and seeing professional people doing concerts,” he said.

Also expanding are the food vendor options, making spending the day in that beautiful setting quite doable. The locally famous Coffee Man will be on site, as will be Stone Fox Creamery ice cream, The Moody Dog “and I think there's going to be beer and wine, too,” said Weinberger.

Camden’s K2 Music will be among the vendors with tables and also is a raffle donor. The raffle is another uke fest element bigger and better this year. Items include ukes from Kala and Hawaii Music Supply; a “Daily Ukulele” signed by authors Jim and Liz Beloff (who appeared at the inaugural fest); and more. And there will be a bulletin board for folks who want to buy, sell, swap or give away ukes, straps, cases and more.

“Even though the festival has grown, we're trying to keep the price modest, so the admission is not going up. It's a whole day of entertainment, music, participation and fun,” said Weinberger.

For the full uke fest schedule — and a link to the YouTube video — visit midcoastukes.org. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own comfy lawn chairs ... and, if they have ‘em, their ukes.

Watch the fun fest video
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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional for more than 30 years; and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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