The stage at the Grace Emily was too small to contain the largesse of the Ukulele Death Squad last night, but given the passionate release of Nick Cave’s most recognisable songs, the intimacy worked. The crowd was rapt.
Adelaide’s Ukulele Death Squad – consisting of Benjamin Roberts on lead ukulele, Eamonn Burke on bass ukulele, Julian Ferguson on baritone ukulele and Reuben Legge on saxophone (the latter two noticeably COVID-absent) – formed for 2017’s Adelaide Fringe, with the intent of only ever playing three shows. They’ve been touring for four years now and seem to be Fringe favourites, with consistent sold-out shows and a Best Music Act award.
In 2018, author and illustrator Reinhard Kleist asked the band to perform in Edinburgh at the launch of his book Mercy on Me, a graphic novel drawn from Cave’s music and writing. It was the genesis for Come Sail Your Ships… Again, an evening strung with fervent interpretation of songs such as “Into My Arms”, “Shivers” and “The Mercy Seat”.
Slotted in to save the gig, singers Ashlee Randall and Alice Barker fill the gaps of instrumental space left by Ferguson and Legge with sometimes absurd vocal backings (particularly in “Red Right Hand” and “Stagger Lee” – arguably the best performances of the night), creating a hectic and compelling musical theatre experience. As soloists and harmonists they carry their own weight, though sometimes miss the mark.
Matt Barker, also a fill-in for the show, is a marvel to watch and his soulful vocals hit desperate platitudes. When Burke steps up to the mic, he sings effortlessly and beautifully, though he is noticeably restrained in comparison to the others.
Roberts nails every note, both the auditory and the visual. His sultry voice is in stark contrast to the diminutive yet demanding ukulele, and the sharp black suit tops it all off. It’s not what you’d expect from the leader of a one-off Nick Cave tribute band, and yet it is.
It’s hard to imagine what the night could’ve been, had the complete Ukulele Death Squad performed, so best to set aside expectations of mad uke jams and settle in for the adapted show, which is solid entertainment, highly stylised and full of emotion.
Come Sail Your Ships…Again is playing at the Grace Emily on March 9 (sold out) and 16.
Read more Adelaide Fringe reviews and previews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.