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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  A Few Clouds
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With his ukulele, Jake Shimabukuro stuns at Stoughton Opera House
Shimabukuro played Schubert's 'Ave Maria' as though it'd never been near a wedding.
Shimabukuro played Schubert's 'Ave Maria' as though it'd never been near a wedding.
Credit:Andy Moore

Ukulele players were bummed the day NPR ran a piece last summer about the growing popularity of the four-stringed Hawaiian instrument. How dare All Things Considered strip away the uke's hip, underground mystique and burst their tiny bubbles?

It was only a matter of time before the cat was let out of the gig bag. The ukulele is a complex, wondrous little thing. Silly and serious. Manic and musical. Recent mainstream attention has created a wave of interest, a wave ukulele virtuoso / Hawaiian Jake Shimabukuro is riding across the mainland like an 18-foot barrel on the Banzai Pipeline.

He came ashore last night at the Stoughton Opera House. It was his 36th birthday and, musically speaking, he really blew out the candles. Dressed in an oxford shirt, jeans, black Chuck Taylors and a pork pie hat, Shimabukuro turned the lovely old Wisconsin theater into his private birthday beach party.

His music could be called poi-dog, which is Hawaiian for mutt. He's known for his spellbinding covers of songs like George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (which he played in deep detail late in the set), and his originals are a salty crossbreeding of styles: classical, jazz, flamenco, funk, bluegrass and rock. If you don't think that such music can blend coherently, you've never heard Shimabukuro play "Dragon," his tribute to Bruce Lee and Eddie Van Halen.

Shimabukuro spoke in a commanding baritone between each song, giving the back story of the next number in short, comic bursts. He does not sing. Yet his music lays down vivid narratives. "Go for Broke," his most lucid tale of the night, is a tribute to Japanese Americans who fought in Europe during World War II. Wednesday night, it was a music-scape that Ken Burns would kill for, a stunning example of Shimabukuro's ability to tell the four corners of a story without singing a word.

The ukulele's tone, its mellow lows and zinging highs, are all exaggerated in Shimabukuro's custom-made, curly koa wood tenor. His hands are like restless birds, alternating feathered up-strokes with delicate pinky-plucked notes. Then he'll chop hard on the thing, leaving the melody line to the first two strings, like in his bracing tribute to Carlos Montoya called "Flamenco Ukulele." On this number his left hand actually found notes south of the sound hole.

Instrumentalists this technically equipped often kill an audience in the wrong way: chloroforming them with a choke-rag of notes. Shimabukuro avoids this with dynamics, a ground-zero muse that is his native Hawaii, and humor. "Five Dollars Unleaded," from his forthcoming album, Peace, Love and Ukulele, took the audience on a nerve-wracking, familiar car ride to the gas station with the needle on empty.

Then there were the covers. He played Schubert's "Ave Maria" as though it'd never been near a wedding. The silence between phrases lasted forever, allowing the uke's sweet notes to emboss the dramatic melody. Harrison was a ukulele devotee, and one can only enjoy the thought of his hearing Shimabukuro's "While My Guitar."

His aerobic cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," also on the forthcoming album (out in January), tested the very construction of his instrument. At night's end he unplugged his uke, stepped to the outer edge of the proscenium, and ended the 15-song concert all too soon with a breathtaking rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Halleluiah."

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