People used to ask Ami Worthen, "What is that little thing you're playing," says her Mad Tea Party partner, Jason Krekel. "These days, the majority of comments are like, 'Oh, I've started playing ukulele!'"
Whether it's a fad coming up or on the way out, when half your band is a ukulele (and the other half is a guy playing percussion with his feet while playing guitar with his hands, as Krekel does), it's hard to avoid being pigeonholed. Hard, but not impossible.
From their inception five years ago as an old-timey acoustic outfit to their latest incarnation as a retro rock 'n' roll duo, Mad Tea Party has made a career of doing just that.
"It's interesting playing a less common instrument," Worthen says. "We don't try to define ourselves as a ukulele band. The way that I play it isn't even the way most ukulele players would. It's almost like I'm the snare drum or something. But while we're not limited to that, it is nice that it's introduced us to this community."
"This community" is a touring sphere unavailable to pretty much every other band you've ever heard of: The uke circuit.
"From the ones that we've had experience with, I would say there's probably a spectrum of music that's pretty small," Worthen says of the ukulele festivals. "And the people are all real quirky. Not everybody, but I would say it's not necessarily the people that were most popular in high school."
Worthen says Mad Tea Party's unorthodox use of the ukulele is usually embraced, though she recalls one uke blogger who thought otherwise.
"We played this ukulele festival, and later I saw on this woman's blog -- she was a mother of however-many children -- where she wrote, 'We had a great time at the ukulele festival until the last band, Mad Tea Party, who played rock music,'" Worthen chuckles. "I thought it was a compliment."
Both Worthen and Krekel have flexible jobs that allow them to tour, Worthen says. Worthen works part-time at the YWCA. Krekel makes posters, illustrations and other ephemera at Handcranked Letterpress (their Barack Obama poster has been appearing in windows around town), the downtown studio he co-owns with musician Lance Wille.
And the band is playing more shows on both the East and West coasts with their uke-abilly sound. Regular performers at rock and folk clubs across the country and slated to play more than 120 gigs this year alone, their latest evolution is landing them a new brand of gig.
"We played the Heavy Rebel Weekender in Winston-Salem this year," Krekel says, "which is basically a Rockabilly festival. And I tell you what, man, that was the most fun festival I've ever played."
Worthen describes a scene not often encountered at uke fests: "It was sweaty, and if people really liked the music they'd start throwing beer cans."
Mad Tea Party should feel right at home at such a wild, unadulterated celebration of music. It's not unlike the scene where, five years ago, Krekel and Worthen gathered with friends to affirm what had until then been a casual music project that began with Worthen's solo strumming. This Saturday, Krekel and Worthen will play host again. But this time, they'll actually be performing.
"I don't think we ever played that night," remembers Worthen of the 2003 celebration, held at the now-defunct Asheville Community Resource Center on Lexington Avenue. "All of our friends played and it was this huge, raging party. It's ironic that when we booked this show at the Grey Eagle it was exactly five years later."
The energy and excitement inspired the duo to go into the studio -- along with a few friends -- and record their debut LP, 73% Post Consumer Novelty, a seamless marriage of old-time string music and early 20th century jazz.
They've come a long way since then. Through it all, Krekel says, the band has just done what feels right. "Our sound has changed primarily due to what we're inspired by at that time and not necessarily because we're trying to fill any kind of niche out there," he explains, while admitting it can be nerve-racking at times. "It works in our favor in that we're doing something from the heart, but maybe not always in our favor because you never know how people are going to take it."
"We've been so lucky," Worthen adds, "to have these fans that stuck with us through all our different sounds that have been like, 'Okay, now they're this, and now they're that,' and hung in there through it all."
Most recently, "that" is Found A Reason, an aggressive effort, gritty and rhythmic, with the kind of songs that could have been recorded half an hour ago or half a century ago -- the kind that would fit right in at a hipster dance party.
The album made its way to Massachusetts based Nine Mile Records -- also home to Stephanie's Id -- which eventually signed Mad Tea Party and gave the album a proper release. Now, Worthen says, it's getting the best response of anything they've ever done. Along with a bevy of good press in music rags across the Southeast, they're earning praise in unexpected ways.
"Sunday morning at the Heavy Rebel Weekender, they have a beer drinking contest," Krekel explains. "At the end, when they were announcing the two winners -- two of them won -- suddenly I was like, 'What is that music they're playing?' And it was our record."
"I got choked up," Worthen says, grinning. "I was so proud."
[Dane Smith is an Asheville-based freelance writer.]