Published on February 5th, 2014 | by Noodle McDoodle0
Review: Uke Master, Compliant ‘Rocker’ Jake Shimabukuro
Charleston Music Hall
Noodle McDoodle (a.k.a. Donald Whitley) of Charleston-based combo the V-Tones is a veteran musician and ukulele player. This guest concert review is a special treat for Metronome Charleston.
“Jake Shimabukuro, Kitty Cats, and the Surveillance Society”
The old gods are not yet dead. They live, still, in the car commercials and documentaries and most vividly, in the memories of the Boomer generation. Yet, a certain kind of calcification is noticeable. Jimi, Janis, Mr. Mojo Risin’, they’re all gone — but their fans age gracefully and bask in the glory of live music and performance to this day. Or at least they all came out to catch Jake Shimabukuro at the Charleston Music Hall on Tuesday night.
Shimabukuro is an undisputed master of the ukulele, and like Béla Fleck and Chris Thile, has dedicated himself to reinventing the reputation and possibilities of his chosen instrument. Like Fleck and Thile, though, Shimabukuro’s approach to the uke is that of a classical musician. He is a solo performer and doesn’t sing. This is most effective when he is playing classical material, West or East, such as the Japanese koto piece he nailed. Though he did play one Hawaiian song on the baritone ukulele, the majority of his concert had him playing note-perfect versions of his own, light rock songs.
Every strum was clean, every harmonic pristine, and every arpeggio an homage to Apollonian precision. He played a stunning “Ave Maria,” but also a jaw-dropping rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Yes, yes — the boy has chops galore.
So why does Shimabukuro long so badly to be a “rock star?” Oh, and long he does. His light show wouldn’t be out of place at any big rock show, and his compositions draw heavily from the Beatles (high praise, indeed). There’s even fog! Legs spread and head held high, he wrings out every drop of feeling he can from the little four-string monster.
Shimabukuro had a loop station and wah-wah pedal. For a few songs, he was even joined by an electric bass player (a competent Rich Glass), and the crescendos were always in the right place. His right hand provided drum solos as an effect of muting. Very adept and very alluring!
Shimabukuro presents all the limbs and skeleton of the classic rock concert, but unlike the ’60s gods of old, he had left one thing behind: sex.
Of course, sex and danger are the domain of Dionysus, so one wouldn’t expect the beautiful, divine chaos from such a young Apollo. Unlike Freddy Mercury, you can’t imagine Shimabukuro snorting coke while dressed in leather chaps. Can you imagine him staging a “Bed-In for Peace” or covering Zappa’s “Who are the Brain Police?” No, you can’t. So the freedom of the ’60s has become formula, and though that’s old news, still a little light shines through the cracks.
There was a chance for the unknown to emerge. You could feel him approaching it during his mind-melting jam on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which closed his show. He couldn’t keep his audience confused though, and returned to encore Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Ah, so safe! So young! So clean!
Shimabukuro gives his audience exactly what they long for — a return to their glory days without the race riots, without the protest, without tragedy, and without danger. Perhaps this is the way of things. The rebellions of today become the cartoons of tomorrow.
In the meantime, who do we have as our Dylan, our John Lennon, our Grace Slick? Are Miley Cyrus. Kanye West, and Justin Bieber really our sex idols? Miley sure wants us to believe she is. Their little gestures seem so tame compared to the heroic lunacy of the Woodstock Generation. Why? Why are the stars of today so timid? Why do they all seem so desperate to be liked? Why, in the era of cybernetic freedom, is the media dominated by kitty cats? Cuteness is the new narcotic. Could it be that in our current era, with the constant contact with the opinion poll, the persistent and invasive news cycle, and the pernicious use of cameras, we’ve created the 24-hour zoo? We are the keepers, and we are the kept. Where can we go to search our soul if we are followed by the camera?
After Shimabukuro, the lovely Mz. Funville [V-Tones bandmate Eden Fonvielle] and I walked through the fog to see a trio play at Proof. We heard a trio there, that like Shimabukuro, played beautiful, instrumental music. Guitar, drums and steel guitar were played by Lee Barbour, Nick Jenkins, and Josh Kaler, respectively. As their set list turned from Jerry Bird melodies to Nirvana, we realized that this is the new era. We are beyond categories. You can play whatever you want if you play it well. The skill and precision were there, and in the music, you couldn’t help but admire and acknowledge the hours of practice and the mastery; but there was something else. Once every so often, the song would start to slide off of it’s familiar track, the players would look up and at each other, and the music would swell with a refreshing hint of danger and yes — sex.
When he’s not playing with the V-Tones at the cool little hotspots, venues, and halls around town, Noodle McDoodle conducts workshops and gives uke lessons at the Hungry Monk Music school in West Ashley. Visit ukulelenoodle.blogspot.com for more.
Top photo by Merri Cyr.
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