Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Image from publictheater.org
June 7 at The Opera House in Boothbay Harbor, ME
For some musicians, the instrument is a servant to the song-vital to the overall operation, but not the focal point. For others, the instrument is an extension of self, a means of injecting emotion into the sonic waves where words simply do not suffice. The same is true when considering the voice-words are not necessary to form a note. However, from the moment a very select few step foot on stage, whether in an amphitheater, arena, concert hall, or on a milk crate on a busy city sidewalk, they become one with their instrument. Their feelings, their thoughts resonate from within the instrument as though echoing from deeper inside their souls. Their breath becomes the hesitation between each note, their exhale being the second the next is played that ultimately releases the momentary suspense they had built. The notes become words never spoken, never needing to be uttered so as to clutter the air and mutter their meaning. The essence of such an artist lies within the instrument they hold, not to limit their stylistic capacity or artistic potential but to dive ever deeper into the music from a point of such profound mutual understanding that it becomes self-identification. I was fortunate enough to witness the culmination of such a transformation this past Friday when Jake Shimabukuro took the stage at The Opera House in Boothbay Harbor.
I was introduced to Shimabukuro’s music a few years ago, shortly after being gifted a ukulele for Christmas. I remember my dad being extremely excited to show me a documentary he had seen on Netflix, rather prominently featuring the little instrument that I had recently acquired. The film told the life story of a Hawaiian ukulele player that I had never heard of and it made me seriously question why that was. The name of the film? “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings”. When most people think of the ukulele, they envision a delicate, gentle-sounding instrument accompanying the soothing vocals of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or played as what could be misconstrued as some strange sense of cringe-worthy humor by Tiny Tim. However, I was immediately drawn to the range of songs in the film, going from sweetly picked modern melodies that had a classical style to overdriven, reverb-heavy solos that were anything but typical of the instrument as I knew it at the time. The film and the man’s story, but more importantly the music, stuck with me in such an impactful way that I bought a ticket as soon as I got to a computer after hearing a radio ad that he was playing in Maine.
Taking the stage at the small venue on Friday night to a surprisingly loud (and deservedly so) applause, Shimabukuro flowed smoothly into a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that he cut beautifully with a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that paid homage more so to The Wizard of Oz than the aforementioned ukulele classic with which it is almost more commonly associated today. This stylistic choice not only coincided with Shimabukuro’s playing of the vocal melodies while incorporating some broader aspects of the arrangement, but also served as a harmonious continuation of the melancholic precedent set by “Hallelujah”. The tempo heavily contributed to this feeling, being anchored strangely enough by silence, pauses that let the notes breath and ring out, building suspense and allowing the coincident emotions to swell. The sense of time had the audience along for the ride, leaning into the pauses and holding its breath, teetering on the edge of the last note before being caught and lifted by the next. And once the last note was played, gently rocking the audience to a place of comfort rather than suspense, Shimabukuro was once again greeted by thunderous applause.
Image from youtube.com
True to the element of surprise with which I was introduced to his music, this performance was no different as I did not expect Shimabukuro’s virtuosity on the ukulele to be accompanied by any other instruments. However, shortly after starting his set, Jake was joined on stage by Dave Preston on electric guitar and Nolan Vernor on bass guitar. One of the first songs to be played by the trio was the collaboratively written title track from Shimabukuro’s most recent album “The Greatest Day” which was anchored by a reverb-drenched riff played by Preston. Venturing into an ascending minor progression before resolving back to the guitar riff that Shimabukuro mirrored with slight alterations, the song morphed the melancholic vibe into one of optimistic nostalgia; of trying to tighten the grip on a time destined to slip through the fingers while looking forward to good days still to come.
Arguably the most dynamic showing of Shimabukuro’s ukulele range that also showcased the trio’s talents together was a cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Starting the song’s iconic riff in an uncharacteristically slow tempo, Shimabukuro again curated sadness; the depth of which was contributed to in large part by spacy guitar and bass swells on the part of Preston and Vernor. Highlighting the stylistic versatility of the musicians on stage, the cover broke from its initial fragility into a surprisingly up-tempo rendition grounded by a rhythmic foundation created by Shimabukuro’s powerful muted strums. It also featured solos by Preston and Vernor, trading off and putting their own variations on the melody as though in fluid conversation with one another. Other demonstrations of the trio’s cohesiveness included original instrumentals, “Summer Rain” and “Morning Blue”, written by Preston and Vernor, respectively. The latter of these two songs echoed the sentiment that it is darkest before the dawn; that it is loneliest before the world wakes up and offers us glimmers of hope that darkness will once again give way to the light of day. Although the set consisted almost entirely of instrumentals such as these originals, the only song to feature lead vocals was a cover of “Use Me” by Bill Withers, which highlighted Preston’s vocal prowess and offered the first listen into Shimabukuro’s own effects-driven soloing ability, melodic arrangements aside. The fact that his lead work was showcased for the first time in a bluesy, R&B-oriented sonic space that contrasted so greatly from the classical and islandy territories with which the set started only served to further show Shimabukuro’s diverse influences.
Image from theshedd.org
After the trio’s rendition of “Use Me”, they launched back into familiar territory with an instrumental version of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Although the beginning of the song reflected the melancholic ambience of its title, it soon burst forth with such energy and emotion led by Shimabukuro’s rapid strumming, that it felt as though the titular instrument had been worked up to the point of hysterics - wailing and balling its eyes out in a beautifully raw moment of vulnerability. The two worlds of Shimabukuro’s playing then collided during the original song “Dragon”, aptly titled in honor of Bruce Lee. The song incorporated Jake’s expert melodic picking and strumming while also featuring his ability to shred on the ukulele (something most people-musicians and non-musicians alike-probably do not realize is even possible). However, the song did its title proud - unleashing flames from the sheer ferocity of the trio’s musicianship and definitely filling out the overall sound with rhythmic and percussive elements such as Jake’s fretboard tapping and looped palm-muted open hand strikes. As if he were trying to top that performance, the set was then concluded with a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, an arrangement of which I am still trying to wrap my head around. The fact that he was able to play the complete melody of the song (including the operatic sections) is close to unfathomable and, further, doing it on only four strings shows the degree to which Shimabukuro shatters the stereotype of his instrument, reaffirming that I witnessed a truly gifted individual doing something extremely special in that venue. The evening then came full circle with Shimabukuro returning to his Hawaiian roots for an encore performance of “Kawika”, a ukulele standard that he proclaimed to be the instrument’s equivalent of “Stairway to Heaven.”
After the show had ended and the well-deserved applause had long since ceased, Jake hung out around his merchandise table; having encouraged the audience to go and say hi. I had but one thing in my mind to say: thank you. Thank you for coming to Maine of all places to begin a tour. Thank you for sticking around to talk to your fans. Most importantly, though, thank you for the music - for sharing your heart and soul, bearing it for all to see and presenting it with such energy and emotion and allowing us to respond in kind. What came out, was a more concise “thank you” but it was genuine nonetheless and the words had the force of these thoughts behind them. Rather than signing a CD or two and moving on to the next person in line, Jake responded incredibly graciously and even asked if I played which started a lightning masterclass conversation on scales to learn and strumming techniques that he implements in his playing. All of that was far more than he needed to do or say and to that I once again say: thank you.