Vonnegut Sessions: Stelth Ulvang and Nick Jaina

“The accordion’s not hard.”

So said musician Stelth Ulvang as his fellow performer, Nick Jaina, picked it up to accompany Ulvang for a song on Thursday night. Sure enough, Jaina made playing the hunk of metal and piano keys look just as easy as Ulvang had a few minutes before. Since both men have toured with the world-famous Lumineers, I assume they’d had at least rudimentary experience with the instrument (otherwise, we’d just have to conclude life is a cruel and unfree country). Of course, if they weren’t such talented musicians, they wouldn’t be playing at our Vonnegut Session. We only ask the best, after all.

Jaina, left, and Ulvang, right.

The concert was held on Thursday, June 1, at the Firefighters Local 416 Union Hall on Mass Ave. The show was scheduled to run from 8 to 9:30 p.m., but the show ran a few minutes over. The enthusiastic crowd didn’t mind, but Ulvang and Jaina, who were planning on catching a 10:30 p.m. bus to Chicago for a concert the next day, might have.

“The only other option is 2:30 a.m.,” said Ulvang between songs as he explained why he was always looking at his watch. “Is anyone driving to Chicago? Tonight?”

Both Ulvang and Jaina are used to cross-country hopping. Jaina, a native of Portland, Oregon, helped found the Satellite Ballet and Collective in New York City and is now its musical director. On one long drive for one of his own tours, he decided to listen to the audiobook version of Moby-Dick. And he’s still alive. In fact, he thought Herman Melville was hilarious. I’m not sure I see it, but since Jaina’s also a Vonnegut fan, I’m willing to respect his taste in books anyway.

Jaina on the guitar.

Jaina did acknowledge that not all readers of Moby-Dick make it out alive. He shared with the audience that Ray Bradbury got sucked into writing for Hollywood when he wrote the script for a Moby-Dick movie in the 1950s, causing his short stories and novel work to deteriorate and almost stop altogether.

“Another casualty of Moby-Dick,” said Jaina.

Ulvang describes himself as a “fulltime [sic] globe traveler.” He fondly remembers his first trip to the Sistine Chapel.

“[I got a good look at the] historical asses of the world. There’s Adam’s butt and there’s God’s butt and there’s a lot of full-frontal nudity, too. This is a holy place . . . and there are a lot of holes.”

Ulvang . . .

As a young man, he and a friend spent six months traveling Europe and Australia on just three thousand dollars of child-support money. When their money ran out in New Zealand, they resorted to living off canned beans, occasionally sneaking into hotels to mooch off continental breakfasts. It’s possible they could have caught an earlier flight back home, but Ulvang was set on flying back on his birthday.

“I [figured I’d] get about a 46-hour birthday,” Ulvang said.

Unfortunately, just at the stroke of midnight on Ulvang’s birthday, he and his friend were mugged on the streets of New Zealand. Just as one of the muggers was punching Ulvang in the face, he had a strange thought: Maybe I should actually meet the guy who gave me all this money. 

And that’s how Ulvang decided to meet his father for the first time at age twenty-one, inspiring the second-to-last song he played at the concert.

. . . Performing with his trademark bare feet.

Ulvang’s last song was about his fiancee. Ulvang said his decision to marry her, while “a 2017 decision,” was still one of the best things to come out of 2016.

Jaina gets song inspiration from a completely opposite source. His songs featured readings from his memoir, Get It While You Can. They were letters he wrote – but never sent – to a woman he’d had a relationship with.

As he explained parts of the memoir to the audience, Jaina apologized for his muddle-headedness. He blamed it on the time change from the pair’s last tour.

“It’s like an hour was sucked out of your heart,” he said.

Don’t worry, he’ll win back that hour eventually. And if he doesn’t, he’ll just have to write a song about it, and he and Ulvang will have to come back to Indianapolis next year. What a shame, huh?

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