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Jake Shimabukuro

There was nothing small about Queen.  The band's and all it's music was assertive, bombastic, larger than life.  And there is nothing large or bombastic about a ukulele.

Or so you would think.  The audacity of Jake Shimabukuro when he not only played Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen's hugest signature song, on the uke, but make it an audience singalong... well you would think it was a classic case of the little musical instrument with a Napoleon complex.  But that is not what happened Wednesday during the famed ukulele artist's encore.  Like everything else he plays, it was entrancing, fun, larger than life, and exciting.  And, I must say, the audience in the center section rocked it, too.

The Hangar Theatre was Wednesday's stop on a tour that takes Shimabukuro across the United States to about 25 venues.  If you have heard him on NPR, or downloaded his albums, you already know that he does with only four strings what it often takes an entire orchestra to do.  That is not hyperbole.  His hands moved so fast over the ukulele Wednesday that all you could see was a blur, and the sound was heavenly.

Shimabukuro brings an easy-going personality and a wry sense of humor evident both in his performance of the music, as well as in the brief spoken introductions.  While some of the melodies are simple, his renditions are not.   Although some of the sound is helped with guitar effects pedals, the skill he brings to his instrument is what astounds you, even when you are in the same room witnessing it.

Shimabukuro is on tour with bass player Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston in anticipation of the release of a new album later this year.  The precision in their playing is astounding, as if three musicians share one brain so that every note is perfectly aligned with the other two instruments.  Some solo pieces starting the second set proved that Shimabukuro doesn't need other instruments in order to fill a room, but the three together not only played with precision, but with the heart that transcends mere skill.  These two aren't just backup musicians, and Shimabukuro is the rare, generous kind of star who chooses his musical partners carefully, and is excited to share the spotlight with them.

Wednesday's  concert was all about the music and the three very skilled musicians playing it.  The stage setting is simple.  A carpet, some stage monitors, and a couple of mic stands.  Preston sang a Bill Withers classic, but that was the only song aside from the Bohemian Rhapsody sing-along -- the rest of the evening was instrumentals.

The show included a variety of styles of music, and nothing like the stereotypical Hawaiian ukulele songs.  A Shimabukuro original was inspired by a woman's sickbed dreams of blue flower pedals gently raining from the ceiling.  I loved the finale (before the Queen encore) in which they played the Beatles' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', one of my favorite songs.  It began with the haunting echos of the ukulele, slow and evocative, then morphed into a Santana-like virtuoso rock fest.

As I've grown older I have to admit that I count the songs in concerts I go to, to keep track of how long it is before I can go home.  I do this even when I am enjoying the music, which, I suppose, means I am getting too uptight to actually relax and enjoy anything any more.  At Wednesday's concert I stopped counting before I got to 'one'.  I was immediately captivated by this performance... the skill, the sound, the artistry, and Shimabukuro's onstage personality.  I didn't think about going home for a minute.

Even if you're not a fan of the ukulele you'd be doing yourself a favor if you make a point of seeing Shimabukuro next time he is in Ithaca.  Or follow him on tour.  If you hurry you can catch him in Plymouth, New Hampshire tonight, Brownfield, Maine tomorrow, or New York City next week.

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