Last Monday night, the Plaza Playhouse in Carpinteria was abuzz with excitement in anticipation of Jake Shimabukuro and his famous ukulele. Shimabukuro has been a world-wide sensation ever since his “Ukulele Weeps” became a hit on YouTube. The Hawaiian has been compared to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis for his revolutionary renditions of covers ranging from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
The venue was intimate and rewarding, as a young ukulele player greeted ticket holders at the door and friendly faces behind the counter were selling beer, wine, and popcorn for the show. Merlots in hand, we sat in theater seats close to the stage and, as soon as Shimabukuro strummed his first chord, the audience became mesmerized. Several times throughout the show it seemed as if everyone had been holding their breath, enchanted, only to let it out with booming cheers and whistles when Jake paused to finish a song.
He began his set with “143 (Kelly)” a song, he explained, as the high school pager equivalent to saying “I love you,” and continued with hits like, “Bring Your Adz,” “Orange World,” “Wes on Four,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the moving “Blue Roses Falling,” which Jake solemnly informed us was written about a friend’s grandmother who began hallucinating about blue rose petals falling on her when she was in the hospital.
After a short intermission, we heard the upbeat “Let’s Dance,” a moving and passionate Latin inspired piece and “Five Dollars Unleaded,” a song that Jake laughingly explained to the crowd, tells the story of a driver’s emotions as they go from happily driving a car with a full tank of gas, to almost running out of gas, to later refilling their tank as the tempo picks up again. More often than not his fingers were a blur on the ukulele, his face scrunched up in concentration as the crowd sat fixated by his every move.
His set was followed by a standing ovation from everyone in the audience, including Santa Barbara resident and legendary music producer Alan Parsons as well as some of Jake’s friends from Japan who were in attendance. Overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, he played an encore only to be given a second standing ovation that lasted a full three minutes. Jake profusely thanked the crowd more than once for their support and expressed his appreciation to the Plaza Playhouse (which has been running off and on since 1928 and recently re-opened in 2011) and their managers and volunteers for allowing him and other artists the opportunity to experience and play in the venue.
After the show, I was able to quickly catch up with Jake in between hordes of people vying for his attention. He was just as genial and humble in person, thanking me and even giving me a hug before disappearing into the crowd. An enthusiastic and truly down to earth guy, Jake was nothing short of inspiring. The show at the Plaza was a testament to his ukulele’s potential as an instrument that is almost as versatile and influential as its owner.