Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain


Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

I chose a concert by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain for my first ever visit to the Butterworth Hall at the Warwick Arts Centre. This modern facility was impressive, with it's permanent p.a. speaker cabinets and stage lights slung up out of sight amongst the roof beams. It has a certain amount of versatility in that there is a large flat floor area immediately in front of the stage which could be used for (say) dance. In a concert setting this provides additional seating. The corollary of this is that the first eight rows of seats are unranked. However for this particular group, that does not represent a big problem as they sit in a single line across the front of the stage.

The band website makes the following claim: "A concert by the Ukulele Orchestra is a funny, virtuosic, twanging, awesome, foot-stomping obituary of rock-n-roll and melodious light entertainment featuring only the "bonsai guitar" and a menagerie of voices in a collision of post-punk performance and toe-tapping oldies." And so it proved to be. In the absence of George Hinchliffe, the normal lead player through ill health, Hester Goodman led off proceeding demanding that we give her a whisky or a gin. They fooled the audience with a false ending to this lively initial song because as the audience applauded at was apparently, the last notes of the tune, they suddenly broke into an incredibly fast reprise of the last eight bars. This set the tone for the evening as a lot of unexpected things happened throughout the show.

The repertoire of the orchestra continues to astonish, they play everything "from Purcell to Punk". That is a slight misnomer as on this occasion they didn't play any Purcell, although many other classical works did feature. It is not only what they play that astounds, but the way they play it. "Psycho Killer" is not something that might be expected to appear in a concert put on by a band of middle aged ukulele players, but it is one of their most celebrated numbers. The treatment of the Talking Heads' song in an arrangement for eight instruments is so popular that I suspect many of the audience have never heard any other version. Music from around the world is always a staple of the "Ukes" so the unnamed third item had a very oriental feel to it.

With George off ill, the rest of the band took it in turns to announce (and indeed sing) the next item on the agenda. We missed George's corny jokes, but Ritchie Williams' introduction to his song was so convoluted that we went through a gamut of possibilities including the Motorhead song "Love me like a reptile", but in fact turned out to be an engaging version of "Life on Mars" by David Bowie. This was followed by a clever technique where the band sing eight different songs whilst playing the same tune beneath them all. It must be incredibly difficult to do and is remarkably effective.

Home grown music is not forgotten in this whirlwind tour of the world. The Zutons an English indie rock band recorded their own song, "Valerie" in 2006, but it did much better when Amy Winehouse picked it up and ran with it. This was the version upon which the Ukes based their adaptation of the song. This was followed by a song dedicated to "a famous British spy" I suspect they meant James Bond, but of course he wasn't a spy, he was a trouble shooter, neither was "Thunderball" much like the theme from the film anyway.

The inter-song narratives proved to be diverting. Jonty Bankes, the bass ukulele player explained the different types of ukuleles played by the band, telling us that usually the smallest in popular usage was the soprano, through tenor and baritone to the largest, the bass ukulele. The main advantage of the bass, Jonty informed us, was when sitting round the campfire, the bass ukulele burned for much longer than the others.

Hester tried to convince us, (not totally successfully) that many well-known, indeed famous women were ukulele players, notable Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria and most recently Cherie Blair who switched from the harmonica after she swallowed her instrument. Quite what all this had to do with her next song, Patti Smith's "Dancing barefoot" we never did quite understand, but that is the very essence of the band, they don't explain, they don't do the expected, but interpret the music in their own special way.

Dave Suich, the one sitting on the far left, (or as he would have it the far right), gave away several prizes to a Mrs Smith (a likely story) in the audience. the biggest and best of which was a photograph of his wheelie bin signed by the whole band, (the photo, not the bin), but he always was the unconventional one in this eclectic bunch of individuals. He then led the band into Prince's "Kiss", telling us that is was not necessary to be financially solvent for a woman to have an emotional involvement with him, (You don't have to be rich to be my girl). This song was cracking along at a vigorous pace when Ritchie Williams not only performed an intricate solo, but also treated us to a counter harmony with some scat singing at the same time.

Ben Rouse then led us into AC/DC territory along the "Highway to hell" The last time I heard this number it was being played by a rock band at Rugby Bike Festival, where we felt the beat through the soles of our shoes rather that hear it. The Ukes version was slightly more decorous, but more enjoyable for all that, particularly as he explored the entire dynamic range of his tenor ukulele during his solo.

Ritchie demonstrated that happiness is the truth (whatever that means) with a rendition of the Pharrel Williams hit, "Happy" encouraging audience participation, with clapping at sixteen beats to the bar at one point. Phew! That should have been the penultimate number before the interval but as they had played it in the wrong place, it had now become the antepenultimate number.

A few years ago, there was an awkward moment when another ukulele group appeared, no doubt hoping to cash in on the success that the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain had enjoyed since they started in 1985. The new group copied the exact format and line up of the originals and called themselves The Ukulele Orchestra of the United Kingdom They toured Germany for many years giving people the impression that they were going to see the originals. To their credit, the Ukes now describe themselves jokingly as a tribute band to the upstarts. What a very British solution to a possibly embarrassing situation.

Another convoluted introduction brought forth a song by a German composer. Ritchie asked us all to join in if we knew the words to a song by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The song needless to say did not turn out to be a Stockhausen composition at all, he got his German composers mixed up as he launched into Kraftwerk's "The model" Surely a mistake anyone could make.

We then suddenly went from NeumÅ­nster to Nashville where Hester told us that despite being in a touring band, she, as described by Dolly Parton, worked from "Nine to Five". Then we moved smartly into Canada for a Joni Mitchell song, "A case of you" This was sung by Leisa Rea who has replaced the founder member of the orchestra Kitty Lux, who sadly suffered a stroke and has been unable to tour for the last couple of years or so. I was genuinely pleased with Leisa's voice and her rendition of this emotional song, the original of which also featured a ukulele.

Peter Brooke-Turner ventured into Junior Walker and the Allstars "Roadrunner" by giving us a really rocking interpretation of the song. I wondered at the time whether I was the only one who detected a Muddy Waters influence in the performance, but then, who can tell?

The girls in the band then delighted us separately and individually, Hester sang her well-loved version "Teenage dirtbag". I can remember the first time I heard the Ukes play this and I still delight in the illustrations of a young girl's problems as she enters her teenage years, sung by a woman who is mother herself. One of the best bands who embraced Ska of course came from Coventry. I wonder if this occurred to Leisa as she sang "I don't wanna love you but I do" in Trojan Ska style. There is no doubt she is an asset to the group.

The harmonies produced not only by their instruments, but by their voices which blend so well, work throughout the concert. This is demonstrated to the full in the pieces in which the whole group sing together. At this point I really must mention the sound. Their travelling sound engineer is a German lady, Verena Rogler. This is her first UK tour with the band although she has been working with them for eight years. She had a total of fifteen mikes and one instrument amp, any one of which could be called to be a solo source and at times all of them would be used to produce total harmony. Verena did a superb job, that might in other circumstance go unrecognised. So as well as the band, let's hear it for sound engineers.

The next song also shows the variety of music that the band perform. "Get Lucky" by Daft Punk also featured hilariously, a variety of farmyard noises including a particularly vocal cockerel courtesy of Leisa. A contrast was the final offering from Peter with a very raucous version of a raucous song, Nirvana's "Smells like teen spirit". In my notes I wrote alongside this song, one word. Fantastic! and so it was.

It was at this point the promised "Bonzai Guitar" put in an appearance. Will Grove-White demonstrated not only his skill but his dexterity by playing a ukulele no bigger "than a pencil sharpener". As a ukulele player myself I am in awe at how he can shape chords on an instrument that tiny. But he did.

The final song of the whole concert, (second encore by the way) was the setting of a well known George Formby song in the style of a Russian Cossack dance. Never before, by any other singer has "When I'm cleaning windows" sounded quite like this. Aficionados of the group know this song well and was right and proper that it was the last song because they would never have been able to top that, so they didn't.

One of the things that so endears the band to their audience is their accessibility. Before the concert various members of the orchestra could be seen milling about in the vestibule and afterwards they make themselves available for autographs or a chat. They really are a nice bunch of people. I look forward to seeing them again when they are next in our neck of the woods.

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