Jake Shimabukuro holds many accolades, the least of which is being one of the first videos to go viral on YouTube. His rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” entitled “Ukulele Weeps,” garnered millions of views after it was posted on the site without his knowledge. A quick glance at the comments section demonstrates how impactful that video was. Messages like, “8 years later, it’s still one of my favorites” appear regularly. But it’s not just his incredible talent at the ukulele that keeps people coming back. Shimabukuro possesses an inherent likeableness and pure sincerity that was on full display during his performance at Campbell Hall last Thursday, Oct. 23.
Based on the excitement of the crowd, it seemed Shimabukuro is well-known and well-liked in Santa Barbara. Energetic chatter and a general air of excitement danced in the audience. The crowd was built up of mostly older, well-dressed adults, but they were as excited as any kid about to see a great concert.
The show began with a single light upon Shimabukuro, who strummed his ukulele serenely. Bassist Nolan Verner joined in to add some subtle low-end. Four tree-like stands holding stage lights rotated 360 degrees and flashed an impressive array of colors. These were used throughout the show to add an extra element of visual interest. As the song built up in complexity, more and more lights were added, changing color and rotating with the melody. The lights added emotional tone to each song throughout the concert
Shimabukuro greeted the crowd with an, “Aloha, Santa Barbara!” to enthusiastic applause. It was clear he was as excited to be there performing as the crowd was to see him. He made shout-outs to many people throughout the night, including Arts & Lectures management, donors, friends and family and the chefs at Arigato Sushi, all by name.
“We did 140 shows in 140 cities this year,” he said. “It’s nice to have some cities that you really look forward to. Santa Barbara is one of those.” The affection was mutual; the crowd adored him and cheered ecstatically after every song.
Shimabukuro’s energy was positively infectious. He jumped around the stage and made expressive faces as he played, entertaining the crowd with his antics. He fist-bumped Verner after almost every song and even fist-bumped the stage manager when he came out to give Shimabukuro a different ukulele. It was clear he was genuinely enjoying himself.
The first handful of songs was mostly upbeat, original arrangements featuring both Shimabukuro and Verner. The combination of bass and ukulele produced a gorgeous, full-bodied sound. At one point, the ukulele master used a loop pedal to record himself playing a reverb-tinged chord progression, and then soloed over it with a screaming, guitar-like distorted sound on his ukulele. The lights flashed frantically as the crowd cheered for his impressive finger work.
The middle of the set featured Shimabukuro on his own, playing a host of more traditional songs from genres around the world. These included traditional Japanese and Hawaiian tunes, as well as jazz standards. Shimabukuro’s skill and musicianship was undeniable.
Verner rejoined Shimabukuro onstage for the last several songs. These were more modern and upbeat arrangements and included a cover of “In My Life” by The Beatles. Before the last song, Shimabukuro took the time to thank the crowd (again) for being there and supporting the arts.
“Music isn’t just a universal language,” he said, “it’s the language of the universe.” He talked at length about the importance of music education, saying, “I’ve been drug-free my whole life and it’s because of this instrument.” He then closed the night with his famous cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
The musical skill Shimabukuro demonstrated was breathtaking. Even more impressive, however, was his obvious passion for making people happy. This is an artist who truly believes in the power of music to change people’s lives, and who aims to bring that transformative power to his audiences. Perhaps it was this sincerity that the millions of people drawn to his 2006 video were (and still are) responding to. It certainly seemed to captivate the attendees at Campbell Hall last Thursday.