Smile Politely

The Duke of Uke: Anything but a novelty act

With a well-regarded new album (This Way Up) and a rousing live show, The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra have been getting a lot of positive attention lately in Champaign-Urbana. However, if all you knew about the band was from the recent press they have been gathering, you might mistakenly think they are a new addition to the scene. In truth, they’ve been around for nearly five years, slowly building their repertoire and their reputation. Frontman Dave King (aka the Duke), while appreciative, is slightly amused by some of this new attention. “I’d say we’re taking the area by storm at very low humidity.”

Regardless, the new album seems destined to grow their audience even more. With song titles like “Sassafrass “, “Happy”, “Happiness” and “Smile”, it is easy to get the wrong first impression. But it is not syrupy, nauseating ukulele sap. In fact, This Way Up plays much more like a jazz funeral than Bobby McFerrin. Throughout the album a narrator often seems to be using the music to make himself feel better, bouncing from total depression on “Heavy Head” (“I’m going to lay my head on the railroad track”) to anger on “Smile” (“Don’t make me put you in your place, wipe that smile right off your face”) to self-inflation on “Only Up” (“I’ve been as low as you can go, and it’s only up from here”) to the all-out joy of marital bliss on the breezy “Wedding Song.”

Though not a concept album, a definite theme emerged after the band put all the songs together. “This album is about falling in love and falling out of love,” says King, who had just painfully ended a relationship when he wrote many of the songs. “I was going through a very difficult time, and the songs were very cathartic for me to write.”

King bristles when asked about getting pigeonholed as “old-timey.” Listening to the songs on This Way Up, it’s easy to see why. While the band makes no apologies for their choice of instrumentation, they are much more than a knock off of the big band era. Early Motown is a clear influence throughout, especially on the Marvin Gaye- influenced “Only Up.” “Breathe” revels in gospel, and “Smile” brings the funk. King says the confluence of styles comes from the band’s diverse background and the band’s songwriting process. “The songs just emerge naturally. We just let them do what they will.”

Despite the band name, the other members are hardly a supporting cast. King writes the basic words and melody for most of the songs, but the writing is ultimately collaborative, with the final versions sounding very different from the initial sketches. Each member is clearly skilled, and the album showcases everybody at some point — the tuba in “Wedding Song,” the melding of vocals on “Breathe,” the funky bass-violin interplay on “Smile,” the saxophone on “Happy” and the drums everywhere.

After solidifying their local following, it seems natural for the band to start looking to reach bigger audiences outside of the C-U marketplace. When asked about the possibility of touring beyond the local area, King is optimistic, but also realistic. “We plan to do some quick jaunts here and there. But we have a big band and some of the members have family to worry about. There probably won’t be any long tours.”

To keep their live shows fresh, the band has a large repertoire, and it keeps growing with new songs. King clarifies that the newer stuff is not all in the same vein as the material on This Way Up. But don’t expect the band to play any slow dirges the next time you see them. No matter what happens, the music will always retain a certain playfullness. “I’m not blindly optimistic, but the affectation of gloom you see on the covers of albums by twentysomethings is just not my thing.”

And that positivity keeps growing the fanbase in all directions. “Our audience actually started out older, but we’ve really been expanding. We’ve recently done shows at parties for punk rock kids, and they loved it.” In fact, the music is so universal that the Art Theater plays it in their lobby because it pleases so many people. As King deservedly brags, “you can swing to it in any crowd.”

The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra play the Catsnap Benefit at Mike N’ Molly’s on Saturday, Feb. 27 with Dottie & the Rail, The Curses, Gloria Roubal (9:30 p.m.) and they play Esquire Lounge on Sunday, Feb. 28 (6 p.m.)

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