Uke and Tuba is a meme waiting to happen: The band plays songs both trendy and timeless on one tiny stringed instrument and a big piece of brass.
Ukulele-ist Eric Frankenberg says it's funnier visually, so he's fond of videotaping shows. One entry on his YouTube account shows the band performing "Psycho Killer" at ModernFormations Gallery. A skinny dude in a grey sweater belts out a surprisingly on-pitch rendition of Talking Heads' breakout hit, as the gangly Frankenberg strums his uke, and tuba-ist Alex Baratta blows out the unmistakable bass line. Two women dancers, one short and the other tall, do some hybrid of the robot and jazz hands. This video has fewer than 1,000 views, but it seems certain that the right song could take the band to BuzzFeed or Reddit. Audiences recognize the social-media potential of Uke and Tuba, and constantly pull out their cell phones to record them.
"The hardest thing for me at these shows is to keep my composure and not laugh," says Baratta.
Though the band has incorporated several members since Frankenberg and Baratta met as students in Duquesne's theater program, it's now been whittled down to the two of them and vocalist Caitlin Northup (who's been lobbying for a name change to "Uke and Tuba and Caitlin").
The ukulele has been in vogue recently, a trend that perhaps peaked last year when Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder released an entire album of songs featuring the Hawaiian instrument. Frankenberg insists he was playing it "long before it was cool, back when you could get beat up for it."
In 2006, he was scheduled to perform a set of ukulele covers at a charity event but struggled to pull off Weezer's "Undone — The Sweater Song" without accompaniment. He hit on the idea of including Baratta, who played tuba in Duquesne's marching band. A few months later, they had a gig at a Halloween party and Northup was added to the band because she knew the dance from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. All three have taken part in sketch comedy and other comedic kinds of theater.
The band's set lists are a hodgepodge of the seminal and the disposable. The members have learned everything from The Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for the Man" to Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A.," and they are up for taking email requests before shows (email@example.com). Any song is game as long as it's just a few chords. Hence, this one commonality between Lou Reed and Miley Cyrus.
"God bless Lou Reed, but everything he's ever done has been a few chords and written for two instruments, with him just talking stuff out," says Baratta. "It's perfect for us."
The band performed "I'm Waiting for the Man" at the grave of Andy Warhol (who was briefly manager/promoter of The Velvet Underground) for artist Madelyn Roehrig's film project showing colorful visitors to the Bethel Park grave site. She also recruited the band to write a song for the project, which resulted in its sole original composition, "Ballad to Andy Warhol."
The band does a handful of shows each month; gigs range from bars and clubs to all-ages events, for which they scratch certain songs, like Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" from the set. ("I am not going to sing about ‘giving head' in the [Pittsburgh] Public Market," insists Northup.)
When called to play at a Girl Scouts convention in West Mifflin, they loaded up a set list with teen-pop numbers, though the girls weren't all appreciative. They seemed to know the band was geeky and thus low on the ladder of social respectability. During a performance of Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," "a few girls told me I wasn't a very good dancer," recalls Northup. "Then they got up and danced to show me how to do it, I guess," she adds, with an exasperated huff.
When asked if they have an honest-to-God appreciation of the recent pop hits they cover, all three are hesitant to answer. While it was natural for them to goof their way through Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend" (especially considering that they went with the hip-hop remix of the latter), Northup actually sounds very engaged and professional on Rihanna's "We Found Love."
"It'd be difficult to say we don't like these songs," Frankenberg admits. "From a performer's standpoint, there is a big payoff for minimal effort."
"I listen to the radio for songs for us to cover," adds Northup. "I tell people it's strictly professional."