Uke Springsteen - Nebraska

uke springsteen nebraska adelaide fringe 20231/2

Adelaide Fringe. Grace Emily Hotel. 3 Mar 2023


Ben Roberts, founder of the Ukulele Death Squad, has performed a Fringe Springsteen show previously, pulling songs from various stages of the Boss’s lengthy career, leaving few punters unsatisfied with his choices.


He’s taken a risk this time, performing the entirety of Springsteen’s 1982 Nebraska album on the ukulele. The album itself was a risk; recorded on a four track TEAC in Springsteen’s rented house as a bunch of demos, most of the songs didn’t work for the E-Street band. While the ‘Electric Nebraska Sessions’ are apparently out there, most of those tracks have never seen the light of day. A few, such as Born in the USA, Glory Days and I’m On Fire survived the addition of the band, and went on to 1984’s Born in the USA. For the most part however, the songs were too raw, too personal, and Springsteen and manager Jon Landeau decided to release the demos as the album.


Nebraska appears constantly in critic’s choices, but it never really sold well, didn’t get airplay and, bar for Atlantic City, the songs rarely get an airing. Yet it remains an essential part of Springsteen folklore and, for the tragics (comme moi), a vital component of the lexicon.


There need be no concern here; Roberts has grasped Nebraska with both hands, and held it victoriously aloft. From the start, he takes control of the songs, making them his own, yet never strays from the essence of Springsteen’s intent. Introducing the album, he acknowledges the song writing, the storytelling, and notes the lack of traditional forms: choruses, bridges, the singalong hooks. And death. The album is full of death – of people, of love, of relationships – and a dog.


In introducing each track, Roberts contextualises with a potted social and song history, a bit of opinion, and often shares some of the difficulties he had in getting the songs down. The voice reverb is a tad heavy, which could make the lyrics a bit fuzzy and the uke a little sharp at times, but overall Roberts brings an unmistakeable Springsteen vibe to the room, no mean feat. The audience is deathly quiet as he works his way through this most sombre of set lists. Bass and tambourine percussion come via cannily played foot pedals, and he manages to fill out the sound while giving the songs the space they need.


State Trooper, for example, is about as sparse as they come on Nebraska. Two chords, over and over and over. Roberts adds to it with some stunning fret picking and slide, but allows it to remain the tragic cry for help that it is. Ah, please don’t stop me.


To close the show, Roberts plays his own composition Glass of Water, acknowledging that it’s essentially homage to the style of song writing Springsteen employed on the album: a well told story, no lyrical repeats, no choruses. He takes the opportunity to showcase his uke playing and if you’re still thinking that the uke is about the jangle of Tiny Tim (or worse, Scott Morrison), you need to see this to understand.


Some people were there to hear Springsteen’s Nebraska, others to hear a remarkable uke player; they both came away richer.

Arna Eyers-White


When: 9 and 16 Mara

Where: Grace Emily Hotel