Jake Shimabukuro was just anoth-er Hawaiian kid strumming easy tunes on the ukulele until a friend gave him a video of a Van Halen concert. Seeing a guitar god in all his glory drove him to redefine his instrument, and five years ago a viral YouTube video of him playing his fingerbuster solo arrangement of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park catapulted him to fame. The uke has had its heroes before—Cliff Edwards, for example, known to a generation of Baby Boomers as the voice of Walt Disney’s Jiminy Crickett, popularized it in the 1920s with his fancy chops. But as a full house at the Egg last Friday night could see, Shimabukuro has brought the guitar’s diminuative cousin into the 21st century in a rather spectacular way.
Wearing a brown blazer, black jeans and sneakers, the 24-year-old Shimabukuro played unaccompanied and opened with the first of his mostly original instrumentals, “1-4-3,” which he explained in his introduction was a reference to the pager code for “I love you” that was current in his high school days. He began the rock-edged piece with a passage of strummed chords, switched to a section of fingerpicked arpeggios, then full chords again as his left hand roved up and down the neck with perfect precision.
A striking tune was “Sakura, Sakura,” his arrangement of a Japanese koto composition about the opening of cherry blossoms, a night much celebrated in Japan. Also affecting was “Blue Roses Falling,” a slow, elegiac air written for a gravely ill mother of a friend. “Let’s Dance,” on the other hand, was a festive flamenco-style offering replete with rasqueados and Spanish-sounding single note runs.
He closed with his warhorse, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and encored with a virtuosic rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I wished, though, that Shimabukuro had played more covers, as too many of his originals overrelied on the device of gradually descending chord sequences (e.g., the intro to “Stairway to Heaven”). Otherwise, he was flawless technically and amazing artistically.
Opening the show was Ilo Ferreira, a Cape Verde islander discovered singing in a bar there by Jimmy Buffet. While Ferreira was a fabulous singer, most of his simple, folksy songs were less than memorable. He did manage, however, to heat up with a smoldering blues at the end of his five-song set.
Coincidently, both headliner and opener rose to the limelight by pure serendipity—the former through the embrace of a capricious Internet, and the latter by a chance meeting with a star. So take heart, local musicians. Like the Lotto pitchman says, “Hey, you never know.”