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Fringe review: Uke Springsteen – Nebraska

This focused and captivating ode to one classic album of gritty realism, melancholy tales and raw social commentary is an enervating and uplifting experience, in the best tradition of The Boss himself. ★★★★ ½

Feb 24, 2023, updated Feb 24, 2023
Ukulele Death Squad's B.S Roberts is performing solo in his latest Adelaide Fringe show.

Ukulele Death Squad's B.S Roberts is performing solo in his latest Adelaide Fringe show.

B.S Roberts and his band Ukulele Death Squad have been a mainstay at the Adelaide Fringe since 2017, selling out seasons and winning Best Music Act in 2018 before making their WOMADelaide debut in 2019. In short – and to borrow a line from Bruce Springsteen’s own song titles – they have built something of a reputation as local heroes in this lucky town.

Whatever amusing novelty might be implied by the premise of hearing well-known, perhaps weighty songs performed on an instrument often thought of (unfairly) as twee or insubstantial is quickly overshadowed by the deep substance of the Squad’s performances, whether presenting original material or covers. The latter have included tribute shows for Nick Cave and a previous solo run-through of selected favourites by The Boss.

Here, Roberts is again on his own, channelling Springsteen’s heartland melodies and working-class storytelling through four unassuming strings. The focus, however, is on one particular album – 1982’s Nebraska – that resonates as a touchstone of stripped-back minimalism, dustbowl murder ballads and haunting narrative, making it a particularly suitable choice for rendering in this scaled-down, reflective context. There are not too many winners among the characters in these stories, as Roberts wryly observes.

The set list here was a known quantity, but Roberts made clear from the outset that he would be introducing and placing each song in terms of its history, influence and connection to his own life and songwriting. Opening with clear, resonant vocals and the restrained foot-stomping percussion of a one-man act on “twisted” title song “Nebraska”, Roberts moved into an up-tempo but still unmistakably melancholy version of the album’s best-known track, “Atlantic City”.

By the time we reach “Mansion on the Hill”, with its lingering meditation on depression, childhood and economic inequality, as Roberts says, we’ve reached our third murder already.

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The record’s remaining and relatively lesser-known tracks are, perhaps, where this show shines the most. It gives us a chance for listening afresh and with guided attention to every well-hewn word and evocative chord, from the slouching rhythm of “State Trooper” to a critical reflection on “Used Cars” and whether driving one might be better, after all, than being conscripted to fight somebody else’s war.

It may be worth noting that, despite being a confirmed and completist Springsteen fan, Nebraska the album has never grabbed me to quite the same extent as its landmark status might properly warrant. But revisiting these raw, lyrically rich tracks with Roberts as skilled interpreter, contextualising each along the way and balancing faithful renderings with subtly changed arrangements, shed renewed light on this wonderfully rough gem in Springsteen’s catalogue.

Uke Springsteen – Nebraska will be at the Grace Emily Hotel for three more shows, each Thursday until March 16.

Read more 2023 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews on InReview here.

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