Fletcher Theater, Raleigh
Thursday, April 30
After opening his sold-out performance with the flamenco-influenced “Let’s Dance,” ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro spread his next 90 minutes of stage time over a pair of seven-song sets and a well-deserved encore, spending almost as much time chatting about his songs as playing them.
“Hey, I don’t have lyrics!” he explained of the Storytellers-esque performance. The audience showed its appreciation for both the compositions and the tales behind them, laughing as Shimabukuro described “Me & Shirley T.” as the result of drinking “one too many Shirley Temples” and depicted “Dragon” as an imaginary duel between two of his inspirations, guitar tapper Eddie Van Halen and kung fu fighter Bruce Lee (whose Enter the Dragon Shimabukuro claimed to have seen 1,000 times). The uke master prowled across the stage on those intense numbers, perching upon a stool for the intricate flashes of dramatic pieces like “Blue Roses Falling” and “Touch,” from the soundtrack of Japanese Academy Award-winning picture Hula Girls.
Shimabukuro punished late returners from the intermission, leading off his second set with a beautiful reading of “Ave Maria” and following it with arrangements of The Beatles’ “Help!” and “In My Life.” The latter was transformed into a slow, almost tortured rendition, far from schmaltzy, dance-floor favorite it has become. Sure, there’s a bit of kitsch value to the covers. Shimabukuro even mocked the “Thriller” zombie dance after performing his version, then excused himself for singing the chorus, pointing out “that’s why I don’t sing." But it's all backed by his compelling arrangements and, of course, instrumental chops.
It was, after all, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that brought Shimabukuro to a wider audience, including live spots on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Shimabukuro recounted the effect of the YouTube video of him performing the George Harrison tune—the Honolulan’s favorite to play—in Central Park, saying that the “four-minute video clip has changed my life.” It was clear that many in the audience had figured into the video’s millions of views, rabidly responding when it was announced, then sitting on the verge of applause until bursting into an ovation after the final strum. Encoring with Hawaiian ukulele standard “Crazy G,” Shimabukuro discussed his progression from learning three chords. “You can play about 271 Hawaiian songs with those,” he estimated.
As in the islands, the crowd cried “faster!” after each run through the melody until Shimabukuro’s fingers had flown as fast as they could. As the crowd filed into the lobby where several ukulele enthusiasts were hoping to get their four-string boys signed, one young player declared, “I wish I was actually good! He makes me want to practice more.” Shimabukuro was no surprise, though: while he joked that he thrived off audience’s low expectations for the ukulele, the packed theater knew what it was in for—and Shimabukuro delivered. Hana hou, indeed.
1. Let’s Dance
3. Blue Roses Falling
4. Me & Shirley T.
7. Orange World
1. Ave Maria
3. In My Life
4. Five Dollars Unleaded
6. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
7. 3rd Stream
Encore: Crazy G