[BLOG ~ ALASKA/USA]
by Russell Copelin.
What can I say? The sun is high and circling, the gigs are back to back, and there is a 20,000+ acre fire burning on the next hill over from my seven-acre sanctuary that I like to call The Ukulele Ranch. Back and forth across Alaska, the Yukon Territory (CA), and Northern British Columbia I have been grinding away while for the past two weeks I have had multiple fire scares and 10-hour drives back to the ranch to move stuff and do fire prep before hitting the road again, hence the delay in my second instalment from The Last Ukulele Frontier. Alaska decided I should put a hold on things for a bit, but the rain has returned and after some creative burning by the fire service the Ranch is safe once again. We have just been removed from the EVAC (evacuation) area.
As I was saying, gigs have been back to back. Already a few festivals, countless bars, lounge gigs, and outdoor events have gone by with still another two months before moose season. That is when everything stops for me, I take a vow of semi silence, and I head into the wilderness for up to 20 days. It’s a big deal. Russ needs to feed his household and some friends. Yes, I just referred to myself in the third person. Ha!
You never really know what to expect when you get hired for a private gig. Sure, with bars and more conventional venues you have a set of expectations when you arrive there. There will be a stage or area to set up your gear where you won’t be trampled (hopefully) and, if you’re lucky enough, a working roof over the stage. I have actually shown up to a venue where they said, “Just don’t move the buckets on stage. We got a guy coming next week to check on it.” Glad someone was gonna check on it next week, but I was playing that night. Cold beers are a must if it is a night gig, or day gig, or at any hour during our 24-hour clock. It’s the little things you expect. Sometimes you get put into a strange situation and you either do one of two things; sink or swim.
Last month I got hired to play a party at someone’s house outside of city limits somewhere near Anchorage, Alaska. The guy who hired me had seen me at a few gigs before and really wanted to bring the magic to his backyard to share with his friends and family. No one, however, told me that his friends and family where all federal law enforcement officers; lots of crew cuts, moustaches and mirrored sunglasses. This was not what I expected, seeing how the guy who hired me had a large beard and a balding mullet. Evidently he was an undercover agent. I asked if he was on meth stings, but he just laughed and never said anything in reply. He wasn’t skinny enough to be on the heroin sting squad. He literally would have stuck out…
Right next to where they had me set up on a tiny piece of concrete attached to the house behind the back door that lead into the backyard. At least I had an escape hatch behind me if the jokes went bad I thought to myself.
“Don’t worry that door is blocked off. No one will be coming through it”.
Well there goes that plan. At this point they had me cornered. On my left as I stood on ‘the stage’ was a large trampoline with eight or nine children on it jumping, screaming and doing typical ‘kid on a trampoline’-type things. Distracting, but I have dealt with worse. I used to work for carnivals. Try doing a gig with the children’s Dumbo Elephant ride for a week at a time. That was maddening. I would get on the mic and yell out to the patrons,
“That’s right folks, banned in 38 states but not Alaska is the The Clothesline ride for the kiddies. I have been contemplating chopping off my legs at the knee just so I’m short enough to experience the excitement that the ride offers. And don’t be fooled, folks, the pink elephants are definitely faster than the grey ones. I’ve been sitting here all day and I can assure you that is not a lie.”
It is all I could do to keep my sanity. Now the week they had me next to the hammer swing game. That was fun. Trust me when I say that I had some choice words for those participants…!
But I digress…
Once I was done setting up my gear the host of the party, Mr. Meth Sting, tells me that he wants me to be myself. He wants to hear my most horrible jokes, by horrible he meant awesome if you needed clarification. Jokes that would get you booted from any normal conversation but are technically par for the course in Australia. So nothing too out of the ordinary for you guys – best senses of humour on the planet. This guy wanted the dirty stuff. That’s why he hired me. He wants the dark side, assuring me the rest of the crowd did too. I paused for a moment and looked at my surroundings again. In front of me were some picnic tables, a meat smoker, 40+ federal agents/law enforcement officers and their families, the trampoline and a few dudes in the back launching potatoes out of a potato cannon. That was probably the best part. Nothing screams ‘AMERICA’ like launching potatoes 100+ meters (yards, long live the imperial measurement system) through the air; it’s amazing how much fun you can have with a PVC pipe, some hairspray and a lighter!
I turned my head toward the trampoline death trap which now had a dozen kids on it, and looked back at him.
“Are you sure? There seems to be a lot of children here.” I said.
“Just do it. It’s what everyone wants. The kids won’t even listen. Trust me,” he replied. I nodded and started right in with the stripper and blow job jokes. I did it reluctantly, but once that first laugh rang out I knew it wasn’t some sort of ukulele sting, I wasn’t going to jail, and these people just wanted to laugh. It was a blast! The BBQ was amazing as well. Sometimes you just don’t know. That was one of the times it has gone well with a slight scare at the beginning.
That was just one of the interesting gigs I have played this summer. Remember, I live in opposite land on the 65th parallel. It’s summer right now I have been having fun with the packed tourist season while the temperatures are warm, however, it has been too dry. No rain and beautiful sunny 30C days, yes it gets that hot here, equals fires and smoke. At least the mosquitos have taken a break. The forest fire smoke took care of them. Gotta be an optimist, right? I’m a glass half full kind of guy.
I’ll try not to be such a stranger. I will finally have some time not to stress out about my homestead burning down and can get back to my normal life… which isn’t that normal.
Images courtesy of Russell Copelin
Ukulele Russ lives in Alaska but tours extensively with his One Man Ukulele Frontier Band.