Last night WC and Mrs. WC fought the Boise rush hour traffic on I-84 out to Caldwell and the Jewett Auditorium to see Jake Shimabukuro live. WC isn’t often at a loss for words. But there are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe this young man’s talent. He gets music out of a ukelele you simply cannot believe. And is as engaging and energetic live on stage as anyone you can think of.
Backed by Nolan Verner on electric bass, who kept the back beat subtle and behind Shimabukuro’s electrifying playing, we were treated to new songs from Jake’s new album, Travels, and Japanese folk songs, with Jake squeezing the sound of a Japanese koto, a kind of long zither, out of a four string ukelele. On the song “Dragon,” Jake channeled the late Stevie Ray Vaughn and gave us classic rock and roll, and pulled an absolutely astonishing electric guitar sound out of a ukelele. And on several songs, he would record a loop, and then play against the loop, with Verner’s bass behind him.
But what takes Jake Shimabukuro beyond a just an astonising ukelele prodigy is his own writing and arranging. Some of his latest tunes – “Blue Roses Falling,” “Kawika” and “Oama”, among others – are just first rate. “Blue Roses,” in particular, is delicate and moving, and the backstory is heart-wrenching. “Oama,” a playful song about his young sons, has a lovely descant in the chorus. You can hear Hawaiian, Japanese and pop influences in his music, but he brings a new synthesis that is very, very good.
And, of course, Jake is best known for his arrangements. His YouTube video of his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has had more than 14 million views. We got to hear it last night, along with another famous Jake cover, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
For too many Americans, the ukelele – which Shimabukuro pronounces “ook-e-le-le,” not “you-ke-le-le” – was a joke, the thing Tiny Tim strummed while singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in a horrible falsetto. Let me tell you, the revolution has come and from now on the ukelele has to be regarded as a serious instrument, and Jake Shimabukuro as the guy who made the revolution happen. He is a brilliant musician, composer and arranger, a dynamo on stage and warm and engaging with an audience.
This is a show you absolutely do not want to miss.
(This review is dedicated to Anne Biberman and Rhonda Gilbertson, who are bringing Jake to Fairbanks in February. Anne, tell Jake that Jim and Nancy say hello.)