Monday Nov. 22, 2003

Strum along with Loki
By CHERYL NEDDERMAN For the Colorado Daily

Aaron Johnson takes his ukulele everywhere. Wearing a straw fedora and wing-tip shoes, and carrying his miniature musical companion, Johnson, who also calls himself "Ukulele Loki," can be spotted strolling throughout Boulder from time to time.

"He has this kind of style from another era - from the '20s. He identifies with another time," says John Quigley, general manager at the University of Colorado's radio station, KVCU (1190 AM).

Quigley met Ukulele Loki, 25, and his co-host, Uncle Jeff, at Radio 1190 two years ago. Sunday nights from 5 to 7 p.m. the two spin an eclectic mix of old-time, "Americana" music on their specialty show, "Route 78 West."

Loki and Jeff frequent garage sales, dusty corners of record stores and even grandparents' attics in search of old 78-rpm records to play on their show. They pay about $1 for each record.

The 78-rpm recordings are different from the vinyl records most listeners are familiar with. 10 inches in width and made out of shellac (a byproduct of the resinous secretions of the lac insect - eeww!), they're no longer compatible with any but specialized record players. But, thanks to digital audio technology, the two are able to burn the recordings to compact disc, reviving and preserving this music for a new generation of listeners.

They define the music they play as everything from honky tonk to Western swing, spaghetti Western to surfing music, and everything in between. You never quite know what you're going to get when you tune in to "Route 78 West," and more often then not, the music is scratchier than Uncle Jeff's Southern drawl. But with Loki at the helm and the bearded Uncle Jeff interjecting tidbits from his seemingly endless knowledge of music, the listener is sure to be taken on an entertaining audio journey into the past.

But the revival of old Western sounds is just one of Loki's many unique musical interests. He thrives for anything vintage. And he does more than just listen to it - he lives it.

Loki picked up a ukulele three years ago after a visit to his grandmother's house. There he found some sheet music from the 1920's and noticed that each of the songs had a part written for the ukulele.

"The ukulele was the guitar of old-time music. It was in every song," says Loki.

Picking his way through his grandmother's music, he eventually became an accomplished ukulele player. Today he frequents retirement homes in and around Boulder, playing the old songs and providing what he calls "musical therapy" for the original listeners of this musical style.

"I like that era of music. And I also like that era of people," he says.

He tells the story of a woman that he visited at Frasier Meadows Manor Retirement Home. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease and was unable to recall anything from her past. But when Loki played a song for her, she sang every lyric along with him.

This experience helped Loki realize the power of music.
"Music is the first thing you learn. And it's the last thing that you remember," he says. He has since made it his personal mission to revive the feel-good music of the past and reintroduce it to his generation.

As Loki claims, this kind of music - especially the stuff he plays on "Route 78 West" - is poised for mainstream (re)acceptance.

"All the hip young kids are wearing cowboy hats and pearl-snap shirts," Loki points out. "Remember when everyone used to say, 'I hate country music?' Now people are saying, 'I hate country, but Johnny Cash was pretty cool...'"

He thinks old honky-tonk Americana is the next big thing. You should think twice about questioning Loki, because according to him, whenever he gets interested in something, "it gets big."

But what about ukulele music? Are the "hip young kids" ready to embrace the jug band, Dixieland, and fox-trot tunes that the ukulele is synonymous with? Loki seems to think so.

As he explains it, the ukulele is the most non-threatening instrument out there.

"Nobody can't love the ukulele," says Loki. "I can walk into a bar, walk up to a 6-foot, 200-pound guy and play a love song to his girlfriend. The guy will just smile and laugh."

Moreover, the band that Loki is spearheading has a formula that is sure to garner some attention for the ukulele and its music. The Crispy Family Carnival Spectacular is a neo-vaudevillian circus sideshow - complete with a bearded lady, fire eating, and knife throwing.

"We've even got a nine-foot albino python," boasts Loki.

Loki is the ukulele-toting emcee for the band, its ringmaster. His instrumental riffs and verbal patter separate the appearances of bizarre talents and sideshow oddities, performed primarily by the band's co-founder, Crispy. (It's just Crispy. Sideshow performers don't reveal their last names).

The two started the band after Crispy returned from studying at New York's Coney Island Sideshow School, bringing back to Boulder an array of sideshow stunt secrets.

Loki warns that all the tricks they perform are not illusions. He laments that they have to carry a $2 million liability insurance plan for the band alone - a decision this journalist encourages after accidentally cutting her leg on Loki's "blade box" knives.

As their Web site declares, "The Crispy Family's lighthearted approach to the macabre has made audiences gasp with horror and squeal with delight." This summer, the band regaled audiences with two performances on Lollapalooza's third stage when the festival rolled through Denver. They're also performing this weekend at the Bug Theater in Denver.

So is the world ready for Ukulele Loki and his bizarre antics? Perhaps. In the meantime, he will continue to carry around his ukulele bringing smiles to Boulder.

"If nothing more," he says, the ukulele gives him "a license for unbridled clowning and fun."


(back to Press)