If the late Tiny Tim (Herbert Khaury) and his rendering of the old-time pop standard “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” is your reference point for the ukulele, you owe it to yourself to check out the Boulder Acoustic Society (BAS).
Neither a novelty act nor a one-hit wonder, BAS is a splendid, genre-bending, four-piece string band with three members who play the ukulele—among a plethora of other acoustic instruments. To appreciate what can be done with the tiny, four-string ukulele, give a listen to BAS’s bossa nova/tropical-flavored “Mango Juice” or hot fiddle tune “Tabernash Breakdown,” both found on last year’s wonderfully ambitious 8th Color release. (Or if you’re really into it, pick up the band’s 2004 B.A.S. Ukulele Songbook.)
“The ukulele is such a modest, fun instrument to play . . . you can take it to the park or friend’s house,” says upright double-bassist/banjo player/vocalist Aaron Keim. “That’s how we started playing it, just casually. But it can also be challenging once you think about what it’s capable of, and how you can weave its sound into jazz, folk, bluegrass, ragtime, and jug band tunes. It’s quite versatile, really.”
Formed in summer 2003, BAS—also featuring guitarist/vocalist Brad Jones, marimba/washboard player/vocalist Scott Higgins, violin/mandolin player/vocalist Kalin Yong—truly defies compartmentalization. Broadly considered Americana—or American roots music—the quartet easily roams through bluegrass, swing, old time, jazz, and classical. While their unique style is hard to classify (thank goodness!), the group’s mission is fairly simple. Well, sort of.
“We have tremendous respect for traditional American music, and we enjoy being a part of that culture and tradition,” Keim says. “But at the same time, we push those boundaries and even break the rules. We simultaneously stick in and stick out.”
For instance, BAS has included some of Frank Zappa’s obscure “Peaches on Regalia” in a forgotten xylophone rag from the 1920’s. Or they’ll put their own spin on Depression-era acoustic blues or early jugband music. The key for BAS is putting somewhat of a twisted yet fresh and sincere take on traditionalism.
BAS will venture further out on the fringes with their forthcoming album, which was just recorded last week and should be released in early-March. The as-yet untitled work has a funkier, darker, bluesier sound and feel, says Keim, and the tunes will sound even more different when played live in the spring. That’s when new band member, accordion/mandolin/piano/washboard player Scott McCormick, replaces Higgins, a new father of twins who’s leaving the group to spend more time with his family.
“Our focus is continually shifting and evolving, but it’s important to us and our core group of fans to maintain a certain group identity,” Keim explains. “Whatever we do, or how weird we get, it still has to sound like us, like BAS.”
BAS sounds something like the Asylum Street Spankers, but perhaps the best description of BAS is this one, as suggested by Keim: “American roots music with the edge of punk and the grace of chamber music.” What’s been encouraging to the band is how many younger fans are responding to such unusual music. After all, contemporary rock `n’ rap this ain’t.
“It’s funny, some of the things that kids hate about jazz or bluegrass are the things we don’t like about it, either,” said Keim, who formerly sold folk music instruments at a shop in Boulder. “Stuff like 14-minute songs with eight minutes worth of indulgent solos . . . bad music is just bad music, it doesn’t matter what genre it is. We really strive to be succinct, graceful, and connected to our audience.”
Reaching out to younger generations is important to BAS. The quartet hosted a youth band camp during the summer last year, and this spring, the group is scheduled to perform as guest artists and composers with the Madison Youth Choir and Wichita Falls Youth Orchestra. Additionally, BAS is a partner band of the Steam Powered Preservation Society and a member of the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society, both of which are dedicated to the promotion of roots music through school outreach and student education.
In the end, what really matters to BAS—which placed second from a field of nine in the band competition last June at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival—is leaving a lasting impression on its fans, whether young or old. And there’s no tip-toeing through that, Tiny Tim.
“We really want our audience to have a positive experience,” says Keim, who also plays old time and folk music with his wife Nicole, a music teacher. “We want to leave everyone smiling, even if we’re playing some darker material. We might shake you up a bit, but as long as we touch you, and move you, that’s a good thing.”
Boulder Acoustic Society (BAS) performs at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake, Alta Dena, (626) 398-7917; www.coffeegallery.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $15. All ages.