Who knew a ukulele orchestra even existed?
Swaying to Handel, Sinatra, and Lady Gaga
When an eight-person ukulele band from across the Atlantic comes to Boston, you stop everything you’re doing to see what in tarnation a band with more than one ukulele could possibly do. A lot, it turns out.
Performing everything from classical, disco, and contemporary to bluegrass and country, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had its audience on Friday laughing, swaying, and applauding in sync to the unlikely, diverse sounds it produced. With renditions of songs by Lady Gaga, Talking Heads, Dolly Parton, Blur, Marvin Gaye, and more, the orchestra playedjust about every genre in the book, adding its own quirky touches here and there.
Its cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” for example, had a “farmyard section where it goes a little free range,” as described by the group’s youngest member, 41-year-old Will Grove-White. A minute or so into the song, Grove-White lets out an almost inaudible “bock bock” in the style of a farmyard chicken, then the intensity of his clucks grew as other members joined in with moos, barks, and baas. The animal addition to the original was eerily fitting and oddly enjoyable.
In another portion of the show, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was belted out by founding member and director George Hinchliffe, a stout, white-headed, hearty gentleman that reminded me of my grandfather. Deemed “Lord Gaga” for the duration of the piece, he brought as much drama to the piece as Mother Monster herself.
And in what might have been my favorite portion of the show, the orchestra showcased its “conflict resolution methodology” during its first of two encore pieces, an original arrangement entitled “Fly Me Off The Handel.” Everyone in the group wants to play a different encore song, so the story goes. Instead of choosing one, they just marry them all into a playful melange: A classical piece by George Frideric Handel played by Hinchliffe, married with Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon,” The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” The Eagle’s “Hotel California,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Nat King Cole’s “The Autumn Leaves,” Andy Williams’ “Love Story,” and Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” Absolutely mesmerizing, the song is almost like a trivia game in the form of a song: Guess That Song!
The orchestra’s Boston debut, presented by non-profit performing arts organization Celebrity Series of Boston, was entertaining, educational, and downright kooky. With ten ukes (and seven types) making an appearance on stage, the band brought out just about every sound the instrument could manage. I expected strumming and picking, but the pings, boings, and doinks made from tapping the body of the uke or picking the strings at the top of the neck and around the tuners were a fun surprise.
Four sopranos, a tenor, a baritone, a concert, and a bass were the mainstay ukuleles of the show, but an electric uke was showcased in Blur’s “Song 2,” which featured long-silver-haired member Dave Suich headbanging; and Grove-White brought out what the band called “the fridge magnet” uke, after he was introduced as “being known for having the smallest instrument in the world.” The fierce and comedic Leisa Rea added, “It’s not the size that counts. It’s what you do with it.” At 10 inches in length, the tiny uke closed out the concert with a solo performance by Grove-White in “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song for television show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“Y’all come back now, ya hear?” called Hinchliffe. You betcha, George. And for those of you who imagine the ukulele as a cutesy Hawaiian toy instrument, I’d recommend fitting a visit to see the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain into your schedule — pronounced “she dyül” in honor of the motherland — at some point to completely redefine the uke in your mind!