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Jeff Moehlis: Jake Shimabukuro’s Ukulele Rhapsody

He wows a Campbell Hall audience with his impressive musical mastery

The ukulele may have only four strings and a two octave range, but after hearing Jake Shimabukuro play his on Thursday night at Campbell Hall as part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, you certainly wouldn’t describe it as being a limited instrument.

Indeed, after greeting the crowd with “Aloha,” Shimabukuro gave an all-instrumental performance that contained a mind-boggling range of styles, from delicate and expressive to fast and furious — a true virtuosic tour de force. Adding to the performance were Shimabukuro’s charming — and often witty — introductions to the songs.

The show began with two “ukulele love songs” from Shimabukuro’s new CD called Peace Love Ukulele. The first was “143” after the code for love in the bygone era of pagers, and the second was “Boy Meets Girl.”

Before the next song, Shimabukuro told the crowd that in high school he watched a video of a Van Halen concert and thought, “That’s what a ukulele concert should be like.” He put his hand up in the sign of horns heavy metal salute, then launched into the blistering “Bring Your Adz,” a title that is a play on the word “adz,” a Hawaiian axe, and the fact that guitarists often refer to their guitar as an “axe.” This song featured fast muted strumming and ascending chords that elicited whoops from the audience.

Next up was “Go for Broke,” a delicate song named after the motto of a group of Japanese-American military personnel during World War II, which Shimabukuro movingly dedicated to veterans and active soldiers.

Then came “Blue Roses Falling,” inspired by the hallucinations of a friend’s mother in the hospital before she passed away. “Trapped” used a fast Egyptian 3-2-2-2 rhythm and musically told the story of Shimabukuro’s daydream during the song’s composition of him trying to escape from a burning building. In “Pianoforte” he could play only one of the two parts that were multitracked on his CD, but it still sounded beautiful.

The delightful song “Five Dollars Unleaded” followed, before which Shimabukuro told how his dad was always low on gasoline, and that every excursion started with a trip to the station for “five dollars, unleaded.” He described the song as trying to musically capture the emotions we feel as the gas levels in our cars change, from the happiness of having a full tank and being full of possibilities, to the panic when the fuel light starts flashing, then back to full tank happiness.

Shimabukuro next dedicated the traditional Japanese folk song “Sakura Sakura” to victims of the disaster in Japan, amazingly making his ukulele sound like a koto, which is a 13-stringed traditional Japanese instrument.

The first cover song of the evening followed, namely a delicate version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Shimabukuro interestingly described playing someone else’s music as being like wearing the jersey of a favorite sports player.

The next song was “Let’s Dance,” not a David Bowie cover, rather a flamenco ukulele song full of drama and with super-fast strumming.

Shimabukuro followed by playing bluesy riffs and finger tapping a la Eddie Van Halen, which led into The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the song that launched him into the spotlight when his cover version went viral on YouTube. It is fitting that this song brought Shimabukuro to the masses, since its composer George Harrison had a particular fondness for the ukulele.

With the next song Shimabukuro lived up to his claim that almost anything could be arranged for ukulele, namely a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Not only did Shimabukuro’s talent shine through on this, but so did the amazing songwriting of Freddie Mercury. Fans of this version might also want to track down the version by the similarly talented California Guitar Trio.

Shimabukuro closed with “Crazy G,” featuring the Hawaiian swing strum, saying that “if you play ukulele, you have to play this song.” When he paused several times and the crowd yelled out “Faster!” Shimabukuro sped up, ultimately reaching warp speed to give a thrilling ending to an amazing concert.

Shimabukuro was very gracious to the audience, acknowledging that “up until a few years ago there was nothing like a touring solo ukulele player.” After the concert he chatted with fans and signed ukuleles, CDs and ticket stubs. Those two octaves can go a long way.

Setlist

143
Boy Meets Girl
Bring Your Adz
Go for Broke
Blue Roses Falling
Trapped
Pianoforte
Five Dollars Unleaded
Sakura Sakura
Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen cover)
Let’s Dance
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Beatles cover)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen cover)
Crazy G

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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