Jake Shimabukuro at the Aladdin Theater, Feb. 19, 2007
Jake Shimabukuro scurried to center stage, ukulele in hand. It took a moment for the sold-out Aladdin Theater to cheer. He bent down to grab a cord and stuck it into his bottom of his uke. His movements were casual, just like his clothes. On the stage there was a microphone set-up on a stand. He leaned in to it, smiled and said, “Aloha, Portland!”
For the next hour, he proceeded to rip.
But he didn't start off at a sprint; he's too good a performer to do that. Instead, he began the evening with a pluck, pluck, pluck. It felt like the upward climb of a roller coaster. Something was going to happen. Pluck. Pluck. Pluck. He's toying with us. The audience leaned forward. He plucked a bit faster, building momentum, building force and creating curiosity. Most in attendance had heard his stuff before: the flamenco tracks on his website, his numerous CDs, the video on YouTube. But all wanted to see him play live. And now they waited. Pluck. Pluck…
Jake blazed into a blues riff, transforming his four-string instrument into a creature similar to BB King's Lucille. Some folks let out a whoop or two. But Jake wasn't finished. He twisted the blues arrangement into a lead-in for his rendition of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the song that made him a YouTube celeb. For some in the audience, this was what they came for, and he didn't disappoint.
Shimabukuro was born and raised in Hawaii. And the islands of lava reflect his playing style. At any point, he might erupt. The kid plays at ungodly speed. Many times, his strumming hand is a cartoonish blur, like the feet of the Roadrunner at top speed. Then there are the fingers. Use a picture of them as flash cards when you want to memorize the word dexterity. These nimble little flyers jump and splay-out with precision. A cool little fact about the ukulele is that Hawaiians named it after the fingers of the player, which to them looked like “jumping fleas.” As I watched Shimabukuro's fingers scatter up and down the fret board, it made perfect sense.
After the opening set, Shimabukuro introduced a song he composed for Bruce Lee, his favorite actor as a kid. “It's called 'Dragon,'” he said into the mic with a grin. The song was light, but forceful. It had sound of intrigue, one that could easily find its way into the score of a Hayao Miyazaki film. It was an adventure, with Lee as the sentimental warrior going from place to place led by Shimabukuro's musical imagination. Everything felt airborne. He performed with one foot in the world and one foot out, yet he somehow kept them dancing together, as well.
And what a dance it was. He manipulated the ukulele with delicate power. It had the sound of two guitars, one playing the rhythm and the other playing lead. He's mastered the technique ukulele players call, “the chord/melody illusion,” a difficult skill where he plays the melody on one string, and the backing chords on the remaining three. It involves all sorts of chord inversions and awkward finger placement. But the sound that comes from it is incredible. You think you hear both the chord and the melody being played at the same time, but you're actually hearing a blend of the two. Still, you just can't believe it's being played without a looping pedal. That's the illusion of it.
The audience was engaged, with big grins across their faces, half-amused and completely amazed. It's something that virtuosos do: astound. But when the instrument of choice is a uke, it doesn't seem so arrogant. The uke lacks ego, as does Shimabukuro, who pleasantly chirped to the audience now and then.
All of his songs felt like small journeys. He took us to warm places, fields and lakes surrounded by spring flowers. When played softly, all you could hear were stilted breaths. His music is like a pleasant dream that makes you enjoy life. With a close listen you could imagine a young boy silently strumming a uke on the beach to friends.
Shimabukuro told the audience about how warm and friendly the ukulele was and how he thought that it could cheer up anyone who might be depressed. He said, “It just makes me happy every time I play.”
The set ended with a bluegrass tune that rang with Bela Fleck overtones. While playing, Shimabukuro walked around the stage shaking his legs with a Buddy Holly like flair. Eventually, he closed it off with a light strum. The musical ride reached its destination. He dropped his uke and said thank you to an immediate standing ovation. The audience wasn't going to leave without an encore. He seemed shocked for the amount of love extended to him. In appreciation, he left the audience with a treat, a cover of the late Brother Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's melody of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It was a lullaby his mother used to sing him at night.
And tonight, Jake Shimabukuro played it for Portland.