LIVE: Jake Shimabukuro @ The Egg, 3/30/14

Review by Greg Haymes

Jake Shimabukuro is a master ukulele player, there’s no denying. And his recent concert at The Egg proved that in spades. Like Bela Fleck on the banjo and Chris Thile on the mandolin, the 37-year-old Hawaiian has taken a musical instrument with seemingly severe limitations to a whole new, previously unthought of level, reinventing the possibilities of his chosen instrument, the humble, tiny four-string uke, best known as little more than an old-time novelty in the hands of such nearly forgotten practitioners as Don Ho, Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim.

This was Shimabukuro’s fourth Nippertown appearance, and he’s previously wowed local crowds from Central Park’s Music Haven in Schenectady to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. This time around he graduated from the smaller Swyer Theatre (where he delivered a knockout show in 2011) to The Egg’s big room, the Hart Theatre. And while he didn’t sell it out, at least three-quarters of the seats were filled on a rainy Sunday night. Not too shabby…

And the crowd was wowed once again. How can you not be? Especially if you’re a first-timer who knows him only by reputation or from his frequently aired PBS-TV special “Life On Four Strings.” And the truth of the matter is that he’s not only a virtuoso, but also a thoroughly engaging charismatic performer. He sported a perpetual smile and often hopped about the stage while churning out dizzying performances like the ferocious hard-strumming of the opening “Trapped.”

Midway through his nearly two-hour performance, Shimabukuro switched to a slightly larger and deeper sounding baritone uke as he settled down on a center-stage stool for some exquisitely intimate solo ballads, running the gamut from the Beatles’ “In My Life” to Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” certainly his most delicately nuanced performance of the night.

He did add a bit of looping on “Piano-Forte” and employed his wah-wah pedal a bit later in the night, but he didn’t rely of special effects. He played a surprisingly wide variety of styles – his flamenco on “3rd Stream” was magnificent – and he knows how to conjure up a variety of sounds of his instrument, too, from the mandolin-like playing during “Gentlemandolin” and Japanese koto-like sound on “Sakura.”

But Shimabukuro – or his people – obviously want to take it to the next level, broaden his audience and play bigger rooms. That’s a natural and legitimate inclination. So the show was jazzed up with pseudo-arena-rock lighting, which was ultimately more distracting than enhancing.

And he also brought along electric bassist Rich Glass, who joined in on about a half dozen songs. He added a welcome bottom-end foundation on such tunes as the surf-inspired “Ukulele Five-O” and the bouncy doo-wop-ish “Boy Meets Girl” early on, but eventually he, too, pushed his way a little too far into Shimabukuro’s spotlight.

Don’t get me wrong. Shimabukuro delivered a thoroughly mesmerizing performance – no matter how many times I hear him play Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” I am always left utterly astonished – but I’m somewhat disappointed that it seems as though he doesn’t trust his talent and instead feels the need to dress up his performance with superfluous show-biz razzamatazz.

Tom Miller’s review and photographs at Upstate Live

Me and Shirley T.
1-4-3 (Kelly’s Song)
Ukulele Five-O
Boy Meets Girl
Blues Roses Falling
??? (Hawaiian song)
In My Life (the Beatles)
Ave Maria (Franz Schubert)
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
Five Dollars Unleaded
3rd Stream
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (the Beatles)
Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)

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