“Aloha!” shouted Jake Shimabukuro to the crowd before launching into his opening number “1-4-3” (he explained later that the numbers were the old “pager code” for “I love you”).
The ukulele player’s facial expressions told it all, ranging from huge grins to ferocious roars as he tore through a dozen originals and familiar covers at the Cistern.
“We’ve been rained on before, but never dripped on,” said Spoleto’s Michael Grofsorean in his introduction of Shimabukuro, acknowledging the containers of towels that were passed around before the show to sop up sitting water in seats from a passing rainstorm.
Indeed, during songs like Shimabukuro’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the only sounds apart from the ukulele’s four strings were water dripping from Spanish moss. The millions of chill bumps on the audience’s arms were inaudible.
With just a single cord to plug in his tiny instrument and a microphone to address the crowd between songs, Shimabukuro’s stage setup may be the simplest of any Cistern performer in recent memory.
But there’s a reason he chooses to play alone instead of building a band with him at the lead. All on his own, Shimabukuro is a master of controlled emotion, segueing from rapid fire strumming into unfathomably intense buildups into calming staccato plucking.
The result is positively transcendent. On songs like “Bring Your Adz,” he unabashedly yells “Woohoo!” after a particularly impressive display of “rock ‘n’ roll ukulele.” On others like “Blue Roses Falling,” written after hearing a friend’s grandmother describe her hospital bed hallucinations, he exercised supreme delicacy and control.
Shimabukuro’s right hand sets him apart from other players of stringed instruments, effortlessly switching between brush strokes, finger rolls, and picking techniques. His abilities allow him to pull off epic buildups, like in his original “Ukelele 5-0” (written for the show Hawaii 5-0) or his “bluegrass” number “Orange World.”
After playing a Japanese folk song, “Cherry Blossom Season,” during which he used harmonics to make the ukulele sound almost more like a harp, Shimabukuro even appeared to be shedding tears on stage. The emotional moment came after he’d played the song’s final note but kept his hand in place, holding off the audience’s applause for several long seconds before standing upright and revealing the emotion on his face.
“I never imagined I’d be doing this,” the musician told the crowd before his encore. “There was no such thing as a touring solo ukulele player when I was growing up — especially one who can’t sing.”
Of course, there were also no ukulele players like Shimabukuro. The 35-year-old pulls an unimaginable range of sounds from the instrument, ranging from loud percussive thumps to upper-octave rhythms utilizing skillful muting techniques.
Any worries that a solo ukulele player might grow tedious after an hour are unfounded. Shimabukuro kept the audience on its toes, even playing covers that he never identified, including Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (the 7-year-old in the row in front of us may have been the first to identify it).
About halfway through the show, Shimabukuro announced “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Pause to consider that for a moment.
Perhaps you play guitar or know someone who does. Queen’s epic opus would seem an impossibly difficult composition for solo guitar. Now take away two strings.
Shimabukuro not only hits every note of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he captures the energy and spirit of the call-and-response octave-harmonies, giving an absolutely thunderous rendition of the classic that’s every bit as jaw-dropping as the version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that made him famous on YouTube six years ago.
At the end of the show, Shimabukuro acknowledged that clip and its role in his career. George Harrison’s masterpiece is hardly an albatross for the ukulele player. Even if it’s an obligatory part of his set, he gave it new life with tapping techniques and bends that he hadn’t yet used throughout the rest of the show.
With more than a few literal tears shed over the course of the performance, Shimabukuro’s weeping ukelele offered up one more moment of stunning transcendence under the oaks of the Cistern.