There used to be, many years ago, in the little parade of shops opposite the Gloucester Road exit from Cheltenham’s railway station, a gent’s hairdresser. Nothing special about that except that the two brothers who ran it were an old music hall act and their speciality was the banjo. The walls of the tiny shop were covered in framed photos, posters and other mementos and dusty instrument cases were piled high in the corners. The banjo used to be very popular, almost as ubiquitous in all fields of music as the guitar is now. Sadly, it has fallen from favour but its former popularity has left us with a very substantial, though largely forgotten repertoire for this slightly eccentric instrument.
Last night’s show was billed as An Evening of Virtuoso Guitar, Ukulele and Banjo Music and opened with Elias Sibley proving that to be the case as he demonstrated his talents and the versatility of the banjo by playing pieces ranging from music hall to ragtime and classical. He also gave us a bit of Bach on a beautiful and, I imagine, incredibly valuable 1930s Martin baritone ukulele. A very personable young man; his set was undoubtedly one for the purists.
The headliner act of the evening, Steven Sproat, is a seasoned entertainer and his set, though no less virtuoso, was less cerebral. Steven has, I guess, two hats. He is a formidable singer/songwriter and also a leading expert/player/teacher of the ukulele.
The first part of his set was dedicated to songs from his new album, Fruit for the Soul, which is due out shortly. He cites his three heroes/influences as being George Formby, David Bowie and Gilbert O’Sullivan. None of this eclectic triumvirate was particularly evident in his songs but when he got onto the second part of his set, it all became clear. He did an excellent version of O’Sullivan’s masterpiece Alone Again (Naturally), accompanying himself on a little electric uke, begging the question why this outstanding songwriter is largely forgotten. Mr Sproat then switched to his banjulele, an instrument he describes as the Rottweiler of ukuleles, to give us Sweet Georgia Brown and the beautiful, lesser known George Formby song, I’m Shy.
The ukulele has become really popular, almost nerdily so, in the past few years with clubs, conventions, festivals and orchestras. Everybody seems to have one, I suppose because they are small, cheap and perceived as easy to play. Big mistake, as Steven Sproat’s playing demonstrated. Not only is the fingerboard impossibly small but the technique for the right hand seems anatomy defying. I think it is here that Steven’s real strength lies, with an instrument on which he truly is a virtuoso.
A very entertaining and satisfying evening which the small, though dedicated, audience thoroughly enjoyed. It was a pity the event was so poorly attended – though not surprising for a night in the middle of Gold Cup week with out-of-towners taking over Cheltenham with their post-race revelries. As Steven said, had he known there would be so few of us we could have all gone to his for a few songs and a curry. Next time perhaps. Michael Hasted 17th March 2016