Uncommonwealth: Lexingtones have shared love of the ukulele

Mick Jeffries, standing, played with the all-ukelele group the Lexingtones at The Hive salon in Lexington. The group frequently likes to tackle pop and rock songs.
Mick Jeffries, standing, played with the all-ukelele group the Lexingtones at The Hive salon in Lexington. The group frequently likes to tackle pop and rock songs. Herald-Leader

Outside The Hive salon on DeWeese Street, you can hear the sounds of 20 ukuleles covering the Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Outside, three young people walk by, hear the unusual ukulele/punk mix and do a double-take.

"If I go there will be trouble," the musicians sing, more or less in unison, some of them swaying and tapping to the music. "If I stay there will be double."

Plinka-plinka, the ukuleles hum.

"But you've got to let me know." Plinka. "Should I stay or should I go?" Plinka plinka plink.

The group is called the Lexingtones. Sometimes it will perform, most recently playing at Cosmic Charlie's at Christmas, knocking out such standards as Blue Christmas.

More often, it is a tribe of experienced and inexperienced musicians who enjoy playing pop and rock songs on their tiny instruments and singing. On this Monday night, their music is accompanied by pops of cake-flavored vodka delivered in paper cups the size of shot glasses, along with several hip flasks.

During this session — held at group member Carla Brown's salon — the group will perform The Letter ("Buy me a ticket on an aeroplane/ Ain't got time to take a fast train"), the Everly Brothers' Bye Bye Love, Roger Miller's King of the Road, Amy Winehouse's Rehab and The Rolling Stones' Loving Cup.

The Lexingtones started in 2012 when Brown and David Quisenberry got ukuleles and were looking to play in a group. They opened Brown's salon to the group.

At first, Brown said, a handful of people attended. But then the ukulele community seemed to take off, and now the experienced players mentor the less experienced.

Last Monday night, 20 people took up all the seats and much of the floor space at the Hive. Mick Jeffries, who was leading much of the music, announced that he would be playing at a downtown venue at lunchtime Friday. He asked his colleagues to come see him and perhaps toss an onion ring his way.

"I've had a ukulele for a very long time," Jeffries said. "But for many years I treated my ukulele as a small guitar. I was a long-time guitar player but never really good. But then something happened, and I fell in love with the ukulele in and of itself."

When he heard about the ukulele group downtown, he knew he had to go.

The group is a lot like a yoga class, which draws people of different skill levels, Jeffries said.

"Trying to keep everyone entertained is a skill," he said. "I always think of our group as what I call a 'salon.' It's purely coincidental that it's in a salon. It's a group of people who get together to share a common interest."

Robin Atwell, a friend of Brown, said she had bought ukuleles for her children and planned to teach them what she had learned.

"I may know a couple of notes," she said, confessing that she is not a ukulele maestro. "There is a nice blend of people and levels."

"And ages," said Janet Cowen of the group that includes twenty-somethings and those in their 60s.

Ukuleles have thrived during periods of a struggling economy. They are generally inexpensive instruments — many may be purchased for less than $100 — that yield good times to even the most casual player.

The current national affection for the ukulele seems to date to 2010, when the inexpensive little four-stringed guitar-like instruments, most often associated in the popular imagination with Hawaiian music, became popular in New York.

Further back, ukuleles were popular in early talkie films because of their distinctive plucky-tinkly sound.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? is one of the favored songs of the new generation of ukulele players, featured on several YouTube videos, one of them from an organization styling itself the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

A recent film, Rock That Uke, celebrated ukulele players. Among the greatest was Cliff Edwards, originally from Hannibal, Mo., who made it as a Hollywood ukulele-playing star — although he is perhaps better remembered as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's Pinocchio.

Most of the Lexingtones had never played the ukulele before, Jeffries said.

Hence, the group's informal credo, according to Jeffries: "Come in, sit down and hold on."

uKULELE ON youtubE

Go to YouTube's "Rock That Uke" channel and look for the vintage ukulele clips, including one with silent film star Clara Bow and another titled "A Ukulele, a Cigarette and Thou."

Also, a variety of individuals and groups cover the Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go? on the ukulele, among them the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, a group that does not seem to take itself entirely seriously.


The Lexingtones, a ukulele group

Where: The Hive salon, 156 DeWeese Street

When: 7 p.m. Mondays

More information: Facebook.com/groups/Lexingtones

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