Austin 101 Magazine

Ukulele Prodigy Jake Shimabukuro Dazzles One World Theater

Austin, Texas

by Dan Radin

It took precisely one measure of Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele playing to realize we were in the presence of greatness.

Photo Aug 30, 21 40 43

The first ukulele strum hung in the room like the spirit of a rainbow. All modesty and dripping with pure talent, Shimabukuro delivered one of the most captivating performances I’ve ever witnessed- and I’ve seen a ton of shows.

The ukulele prodigy played two back-to-back sets in the same night at One World Theater, the perfect desert oasis to enjoy one of Hawaii’s most stunning talents. Shimabukuro delivered over an hour and a half of rock covers and original tunes to an audience that clung onto every tiny uke note.

Photo Aug 30, 21 54 05Shimabukuro has the uncanny ability of perfectly swapping between lullaby finger-plucking, and jumping into a head-banging full strum. He could lull you to sleep, wake you up with a finger sweep, and then whisk you to another world. During heavier rock songs, he anchored his spread feet and threw down, transforming his little wooden ukulele into an instrument of destruction. Jumping straight from a rock song, his strings could immediately sing with the sweetness of a children’s choir. The intimacy of his playing would tickle your gut, bring you to bawl, and make you fall in love all at the same time.

While Shimabukuro is known to most for his YouTube cover fame of Queen and Beatles hits, he did his best to forego solo recognition in favor of playing as a unit with his trio. Flanked by guitarist Dave Preston and bassist Nolan Verner, the instrumental combo was the perfect compliment to balance a mainstage ukulele. Shimabukuro “featured” each of his bandmates early and often for their own foundational musicianship. As his MC (Executive Director, Hartt Stearns) put it, “he’s got a nice stage persona, but let me tell you, he’s even nicer backstage.”

See all the photos from the show on Austin 101.

That much was apparent from his opening “Aloha!”. Shimabukuro’s kind demeanor never faltered, even when throwing down pure fire during Eddie Van Halen-like shredding, and then passing the baton to his trio mates for a solo. He was the star of the show who didn’t mind sharing the stage.

The trio shone as a cohesive unit, trading smooth licks over spacey guitar tones, then switching back to focus on another instrument riff. Each song was expertly arranged, performed with the tightness of a live recorded concert album. “Eleanor Rigby” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” brought us into the clutches of Beatlemania. Classic uke song “Over the Rainbow” (by Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole) transported the room to a Hawaiian white sandy beach. Even the originals like “Greatest Day” held the audience’s attention until the final strum. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” wistfully spun its way from Shimabukuro’s ukulele into the Texas night.

Photo Aug 30, 23 08 31Local swing legend Ray Benson even jumped in on the action to plug the pair’s upcoming collaboration album. He, too, called Shimabukuro on his modesty, having recorded the new songs with an all-star cast alongside Benson himself, but also Jack Johnson, Bette Midler, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson. You could tell neither could wait to share the album with the world.

Shimabukuro then wrapped with a cover of crowd sing-along “Bohemian Rhapsody” that rivaled Freddie’s (Queen’s Freddie Mercury) own expressive delivery. It was incredible to see the master at work.

We knew from YouTube that Shimabukuro was ukulele rock royalty. We learned from seeing him live that he’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent, who has no interest in being named the greatest. And as phenomenal as his playing is, that’s what makes him immortal.

See all the photos from the show on Austin 101.

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