Ukulele. No guitar, bass or drums, no piano or other instrument, certainly no singing. Just ukulele, for an hour and forty minutes. If that sounds akin to pulling teeth, then you aren't one of the nearly 5 million people that have watched the viral video of the Beatles' “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as played by Jake Shimabukuro.
In the three years since the video hit YouTube, Shimabukuro has singlehandedly elevated the ukulele well beyond its reputation as an island novelty or a prop for Tiny Tim. Often called “the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele,” it could be argued that the Hawaiian-born Shimabukuro has done more for his instrument than Hendrix ever did for the electric guitar.
Shimabukuro's sold out show at the Belly Up Tavern last night proved that both the performer and the instrument are impossible to pigeonhole. Some of his original compositions might be at home on smooth jazz radio, with their friendly melodies and piano voicings – except for the sudden, aggressive percussion break played on the body and strings of the uke, or the surprise fingertapped, guitar-shred style solo, as Shimabukuro stomps and head-bangs along.
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The ukulele master also offered his intricate and unique takes on the Beatles' “In My Life,” Michael Jackson's “Thriller” and even Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody,” familiar songs that inspired both audience singalongs and wide-eyed, silent awe.
Shimabukuro's sound is all at once jazz, rock, blues, classical, flamenco – and always engaging, always fun. No small feat for just one man and his tiny four-stringed companion.
Between songs the virtuoso told funny, self-deprecating stories that chronicled his ascent from internet phenom to playing for the Queen of England.
Childhood friend Makana opened the show with his slack key guitar mastery and emotional, soaring vocals. Choosing from five albums worth of material, Makana played dramatic originals and covers ranging from Led Zeppelin's “Going to California” to Sting's “Fragile.” Later in the evening Makana joined Shimabukuro onstage for Cat Stevens' “Where Do The Children Play?” With chord changes called out mid-solo, the pair illustrated just how well they jive, even on a song they'd never before played together.
Jake Shimabukuro plays across the western US through March before joining Tommy Emmanuel's European tour in April. Learn more at http://jakeshimabukuro.com