Long-time readers of Wickersham’s Conscience know that WC is a serious fan of Jake Shimabukuro, You can find WC’s review of his 2015 concert elsewhere in this blog. No one should be surprised that WC and Mrs. WC fought the ghastly rush hour traffic from Boise to Caldwell to see Jake again last Tuesday night.
When you say “ukulele virtuoso” it sounds like a joke, or snark. A stunt. But trust me, since breaking into the world’s attention in 2006 with the viral video hit “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (16.3 million views) Shimabukuro has only gotten better. He finds sounds in a ukulele1 that you cannot believe are there, even as you watch him play. Shimabukuro is a jaw-dropping, breath-taking, astonishing musician. He has taken the Hawaiian official state modern musical instrument to the status of global fame.
His set list for the Caldwell show illustrates the point. He opened with Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” backed with a bassist and an electric guitar and rocked the house down. From there he gave the audience a strong sampling of songs from his latest album, The Greatest Day, including a modern classical music song, full of dissonances and atonals, an absolutely brilliant “Eleanor Rigby,” where he both extracted sitar-like tones from his ukulele and recorded a bass loop (by slapping the uke body) and played against the loop. Blues, jazz improvisations, a very nice cover of Bill Wither’s “Use Me,” and a snare drum sound-led tribute to the 442nd Army Division, the fighting unit composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) who fought in World War II. And, appropriately enough, a jazzed-up version of a traditional Hawaiian tune, a tribute to King Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii and a famous champion of the ukulele.
All those sounds — snare drums, sitar, shamisen (a three-string Japanese guitar), drums and more – came out of a ukulele in the hands of Jake Shimabukuro. Not to mention electric runs, Mark Knopfler-speed playing and liquid-clear notes. All from an instrument smaller than a violin, with just four stings, and an acoustic range only slightly more than half of a classical guitar. Those limits have nothing to do with what Shimabukuro does.
Beyond being an amazing artist, Shimabukuro is a genuinely nice, warm guy. He tirelessly gives ukulele workshops at most stops on his tours, urges kids to follow their passions and on stage has an amazingly high energy level. He clearly loves his work. It all combines to make hims a delightful live act.
He’s 42 years old now, and his music writing skills, assisted, he says, by his bassist, Nolan Verner, are extremely impressive. About half of the tunes were Shimabukuro’s own work, and there was no difference in quality. Take, for example, the tune “Panagram,” which in a single song works through a chromatic scale that utilizes all the notes in the Western music scale. It sounds like a gimmick, but even a non-musicologist like WC rode happily along the tune’s rivers of cascading melodies and its pumping, rock-soul rhythms.
Jake closed his show with the song that made him famous, a rollicking, hard rock cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” followed by an audience sing-along of another Jake standard, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with amazing mid-song ukulele improvisations.
Delightful music. A delightful musician. Fine backing work by bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston. A wonderful evening.
Seriously, see this guy live if you can. WC can’t wait to see where he takes the ukulele next.
- Which he pronounces “ook-uh-lay-lee,” by the way, not “you-kuh-lay-lee”. He’d probably know. Be advised. ↩