By Mike Ordidge
17th December 2012
Secret Sounds’ Reporter Mike Ordidge gives us his view of the fantastically odd Ukulele Orchestra
The Ukulele. One of the most simplistic instruments you could ever come across, often dismissed as a child’s plaything with its four strings and humble honest tones. Softly spoken and unusually undervalued, often loomed over as a bygone producer of popular music in wartime Britain thanks to some leaning on lampposts and cleaning of windows… Anyone mentioning the F-word here can stop right now.
The stage set-up echoes the simplicity of the instrument. Eight seats in a semi-circle at the centre of the stage with their accompanying sets of microphones, one for the instrument and one for its’ player. The chairs are flanked by two humble Christmas trees, the only real reminder that it is ‘that’ time of year. From this you get a feeling that the Orchestra really do have a sense of humour, since the venue and remainder of the stage behind them are used to hosting much larger ensembles of musicians.
And the humour doesn’t end there… from the moment the group walk on stage dressed in their evening wear, dinner jackets and formal dresses, you really do get a sense of their tongue-in-cheek style. A welcome reminder to take lots of things, including life, a bit less seriously and to simply enjoy yourself. In fact the humour is ever present in their choice of songs, occasional groan inducing jokes (e.g. Stage Presents) and range of smaller, and smaller still, ukuleles. The smallest one they used was actually made as a pencil sharpener as opposed to a touring instrument. It is clear from the start that all of the Orchestra love what they do and are proud to be showing what understated capabilities a Ukulele possesses. The ‘Uke’ has started to develop a bit of a cult following, especially since it is a quite straight forward, pick up and play instrument, which does lend itself to people having ‘interesting’ conversations on a lengthy basis. The Orchestra poke a little fun at this during the run of their performance, re-emphasising the importance of enjoying the evening as opposed to getting bogged down in preachy rhetoric.
‘Hooray for Hollywood’ kicks off the evening’s proceedings, a clear an upbeat start summarising how well travelled the group are, the irony being they didn’t play the song while on a recent visit to the states, only when they’d left. The almost hypnotic strumming appears to reverberate all the way through the instruments in to the legs of each of the players, an interesting feat since they’re all sat down. The first of the smaller Ukes mentioned makes an appearance for ‘Kiss’, which loses none of its funk from the original. There is a sentiment here of ‘smaller, but none less powerful’ of the instrument in question that the songs original composer might just agree with.
The next rendition is introduced to the audience as a ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ folk song but is nothing short of brilliant…’Anarchy in the UK’. It’s metamorphosed from a growly, aggressive, thrashed-out punk song into a harmonistic socialist-esque sing along, with the closing lyrics and harmony echoing around the hall perfectly. Strange, considering the original choice of words. It’s at this point when I start to notice how the Orchestra are making just as beautiful a version of the music when playing their instruments, as when they are not playing. So poignant are their choice of arrangements that they hold the tones of the music through the quiet periods. The group also give their ukes a well-deserved rest as they sea-shanty up a version of ‘Pinball Wizard’ frothing up like an Angel Delight.
Notable changes of pace for as they strum their way through a skilful bluesy and upbeat ‘Hot tamale’ as well as checking the regional flavour through a mesmerising performance of Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’, and educate us all with their skill during a thirty-two bar blues (as opposed to the traditional twelve) ‘Lime house blues’.
The group isn’t afraid to keep up with the times with their choice of songs either. Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ is cleanly performed while Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ is changed into a hillbilly train ride which has no problems dragging you along with it, time to get on board. A brilliant cover of ‘Hot lips’ by a lesser known Swedish band Pacific!, complete with an adapted middle section highlighting an amazing build, rivalling any ‘Free bird’ or Doors organ solo (without any tedious parts). The Orchestra label this part the Stockholm groove – It’s like IKEA furniture… you break it down, before you put it back together again.
It does feel a little strange at this part of the evening for the band to take an interval although clutching on to their ukes proud and precious. Upon their return we are treated to two Christmas themed ‘Sleigh Ride’ and a 50’s laid back lounge version of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’. The Doo-Wop style of ‘It’s Christmas’ once screamed by Noddy Holder never sounded so cool. Oh and complete with fake snow which they dowse over their compatriots.
You get a real scope of the material covered and the flexibility of musical talent the group possess with their rendition of Kraftwerk’s ‘She’s a model’ timely interspersed with robotic mannequin poses fitting in with the electro theme and 80’s materialistic monoculture of the original. They do adapt well in other genres with ‘Bang Bang’ morphing into an almost sinister bond theme. Echoed later in ‘Thunderball’ although this time it is complete with a New Yorker style accent, more of a P.I. than a 007. This is even more noticed in their version of ‘The Good, The Band and The Ugly’ theme which is engrossing to say the least, almost possessing you with an awesome atmosphere. The whistle and almost clock chime strums never made the piece sound so complete and haunting. Ennio Morricone should take note when composing his next soundtrack.
A crisp bluesy version of Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ is well timed here, making you think they are reaching the end of the performance but it still manages to grab a hold of your focus, not letting you leave the stage. They wrap up in good humour too with perhaps the smallest uke known to man, on the lead funk strum for ‘Le Freak’.
After a debate between the members of the Orchestra on what song to play for their encore they lead off with a version of Handel’s ‘Harpsichord Suite No.7’ on a solo ukulele, much to the puzzlement of the audience. Only for piece by piece, and voice by voice, the song assembles into a medley of popular music. Vocal harmonies ‘Fly me to the Moon’, ‘Love Story’, ‘Killing me softly’ and ‘Hotel California’ being placed layer upon layer. An awe inspiring feat and a fitting display of the group’s musical skill, wide range of talent and democratic choice of songs. The cake is well and truly iced at the point where the vocalists are left to a capella, while the soloist sips on a cup of tea.
Although technically when playing a symphony hall in a place normally referred to as Britain’s second city doesn’t exactly make this a ‘secret sound’, given the average age of the audience however, so many more people need to hear it and experience it live. From swing to heavy metal to electro to blues and through several decades of popular music, albeit a cover version or a cleverly altered reworking, you really do feel like they could turn their hands, ukes and voices to anything. I can’t resist but end on a pun, so to paraphrase a 90’s rapper called Stanley: Uke really can’t touch this.