OK, don’t laugh: ukulele.
Jake Shimabukuro claimed that very word guarantees low expectations, but not when he plays it. On Friday at The Egg’s Swyer Theater, the Hawaiian virtuoso raised the instrument most associated with Tiny Tim to unimaginable heights in an overwhelming performance.
This was a musical journey, from his origins playing traditional Hawaiian tunes — only three chords supplied 300 songs, he quipped — to astonishing displays of eclectic repertoire: He finished with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Noting the ukulele’s lowest note is middle C on the piano and its range is just two octaves, Shimabukuro didn’t so much extend the instrument’s limitations as explode them. His piano discussion preceded “Pianoforte,” a finger-style ballad of baroque brilliance ala Pachelbel. In “Sakura Sakura,” he uncannily emulated a Japanese 13-string koto, not just in its sound, but also in its phrasing.
For those YouTubed into his fan base by “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (composer George Harrison was a big time ukulele fan) or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” he served up these covers graciously and without condescension. “Weeps” grew from delicate to driving, while “Hallelujah” was all slow, quiet majesty.
In his intros, and how he played everything, he was generous and nice, to the music, to the venue and to the audience. Yet his own compositions revealed more of Shimabukuro as an artist than the covers. His opening “143” recalled the use of this phrase on pagers to say “I love you.” He recalled seeing a Van Halen concert video as an inspiration to introduce “Bring Your Adz” (an adz is smaller than an axe, slang for a guitar) and it included Van Halen riffs.
“Me and Shirley T.” (for Shirley Temples) playfully evoked the effects of too much sugar, but he effortlessly shifted gears into the delicious “Blue Roses Falling,” a tender tribute to a friend’s ailing grandmother. “Five Dollars Unleaded” expressed the possibilities of a full gas tank, the anxiety of an empty one and the fulfillment of a gas station ahead.
A horse that can count to 10 is a great horse, not a great mathematician, but Shimabukuro is a great musician unlimited by expectations of the ukulele. He may either popularize the much-maligned four-string by demonstrating its capabilities or scare millions from ever trying it.
Opener Ilo Ferreira was discovered playing a bar in the Cape Verde Islands by Jimmy Buffett, and the jam-full Swyer Theater shared that sense of discovery on Friday, as the young troubadour introduced himself with world-music uplift and international-star skills and charisma. He and Kyle Rife locked guitars and voices in two easy-flowing mid-tempo lopes, with more waltz-time grace than Afro-pop bounce.
Once saxophonist and singer Klem Klimek (longtime NRBQ guest honker and co-leader of the soul band Entrain) completed the trio, the music gained heft and honks. They then spanned the globe with “Fisherman’s Song” in Ferreira’s island tongue, and climaxed with “Maddy Jo,” a driving blues in the Jimmy Reed style: sizzling and strong. This guy won’t be an opening act for long.