They have been filling venues throughout Britain and across the world and, true to form, their gig at the O2 Academy in Bournemouth was a sell-out. Not great fun standing in a long queue outside The Academy for half-an-hour, waiting for the doors to open in near-zero temperature, but at least we could look forward to the warmth inside. Wrong! When we eventually got in, with minutes to spare before the start of the performance, there seemed to be no heating at all.
The eight-piece ensemble, in their signature dinner suits, appeared to a great ovation and as a ‘warm-up’ went straight into ‘Tiger-Rag’. These are more than ‘strummers’ and they seem to embrace any style they play. From this fast, furious and exciting start they moved smoothly into their wonderful version of ‘Silver Machine’ – the driving, percussive beat displaying their typical energetic approach and great timing.
There was barely time to admire the wonderful restoration of this venue that has retained many of the period features of the original 1895 Grand Pavilion Theatre, and the glory days of its Music Hall past. Three levels of seating, booths and a Royal Box together with the magnificent proscenium arch and ornate steel-work provide an intimate, yet quite roomy setting. It seemed the perfect place to see this ground-breaking, alarmingly talented ‘Orchestra’ who use just acoustic ukuleles to provide stunning entertainment.
They cover the most unlikely songs and the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’worked well, done in the style of The Spinners! Great audience participation here too. The Band was warming up musically but they made several jokes about the morgue-like temperature in the auditorium. A complete change of pace and mood followed with ‘Danse Macabre’ a serious classical piece by Saint Saëns played absolutely straight. This should not be suitable for the ukulele, but again they made it their own and it worked brilliantly. Their classical training was clearly demonstrated here.
With their usual complete contrast, they followed this with Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, melodiously sung by Hester Goodman, with audience participation. The incongruity was telling and funny; the beautifully crafted backing to this song again added to the experience. They then further showed their versatility with a complex adaptation of a Swedish folk-song ‘Hot-Lips’.
These musicians take the ukulele to new heights of performance and they can also sing. Without accompaniment, in close harmony, they performed an extraordinary version of ‘Pinball Wizard’ – an excellent rendition. It is said that the ‘Orchestra’ has put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain and by now we were in total agreement with that statement.
In the second-half even the many, unnecessary and restless, Security Staff seemed to be really appreciating the performance, despite the highly annoying, constant chatter from their personal intercoms. The ‘Orchestra’ received yet another great ovation for their rendition of ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’. Great timing and a talented whistler!
The babble on the intercoms was well drowned out by ‘Rock Around The Clock’ – even Bill Haley would have been impressed. They showed they can play jazz too, with a spirited ‘Limehouse Blues’. Through the quiet bits of the next song however – a sea shanty – sensitively sung by Kitty Lux, the chatter of the intercoms was again highly distracting.
Can you whistle one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in perfect pitch? Well the bass player of the UOGB, Jonty Bankes, certainly can! He has a great singing voice too. The UOGB’s version of the US gangster movie theme ‘Shaft’ has become a modern classic and this was weirdly linked to the British folk song collector Cecil Sharp – great fun.
The audience loved ‘ Yes Sir, I can Boogie’ and laughed through a ‘Johnny Cash Special’. They showed further versatility with use of a miniature ukulele and then six of the eight players plucked and strummed just one soprano ukulele together, in a rendition of ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’. Hester Goodman’s beautifully sung version of ‘Le Freak’ followed, its percussive elements using the ukulele body and a complex bass backing, brought the performance to a vibrant end.
It’s difficult to control the hyperbole when reviewing a Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain concert. The ‘UOGB Experience’ is unique, totally absorbing and full of wonderment. No matter how ‘trivial’ the original piece the Orchestra brings polish, a frightening level of skill and, above all, fun to their performances. They are ably led by George Hinchcliffe, a bluff, very funny Yorkshireman with the timing of a stand-up comedian.
Their extraordinary set of talents and the ability to entertain across a wide range of genres gives them wide appeal. They have made the humble ‘uke’ into a cult instrument and pushed the boundaries of acoustic group musicianship to a new level. If you get chance to see them, don’t miss the greatest pluckers in the musical Empire.
DJC Feb 2011