It's arguable that the best things in life are free, of course. But also that they happen serendipitously. The other morning I was awakened, as I often am, listening to Radio National Breakfast. Amidst the controversy over Swanny's payout on the Rineharts of this world and al-Assad's latest local crime against humanity, Fran Kelly managed to shoehorn in an interview with The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain, the existence of which, I must confess, was news to me. It was an unexpected revelation. Not only musically, but comedically. Live-to-air, at sparrow's, three or four of their number (eight, in all) played, for example, a blistering version of Nirvana's iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit. Gimmicky? Well, yeah. Or it would be, if it weren't for the fact they're such consummate musicians: instrumentally and vocally. You might think, 'sure, musicians!', when you think 'they only play ukuleles'. That means you've never heard Jake Shimabukuro play, I should think. Or this lot.
The brief encounter was enough to see me scrambling and begging for tickets for their one-night-only gig, in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. Another surprise! The Concert Hall?! Six men and two women I've never heard of before are going to fill it? Well, just goes to show how little I know. The UOGB have been around, if I've got it straight, for 27 years and tour the world more-or-less constantly. They've a very considerable repertoire that couldn't be more eclectic or, again, surprising. They all sing. They all play ukuleles (from soprano, to tenor, to concert, to bass; yet another surprise, their extended family). And they're all very funny: it might be tightly-scripted spontaneity (much of the best extemporisation is), but it's delivered with such apparent comic candour and impeccable timing it can only but endear them and reinforce rapport no end.
All of these positive first impressions and consequent high expectations were more than met on stage. They bill themselves as plucking brilliant (or The Sunday Times did) and that's exactly what they are. I can't remember the last time I was so disarmed by such a thoroughly enjoyable evening of entertainment. Which, of course, makes it all sound revoltingly middle-class and middle-of-the-road. But it isn't.
Whether it be progressive popsters Pacific's Hot Lips, Beethoven's Ninth (well, an excerpt thereof, in Ode To Joy), gravelly-voiced George coming over all Kate Bush with Wuthering Heights, Dave swishing his long, white mane in precisely the same manner as Kurt Cobain in that famous clip, a jaw-dropping rendition of Ennio Morricone's immortal The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (which sounds for all the world like a full-on orchestra of the more traditional kind and the whistling alone is worth the price of admission), Steppenwolf's Born To Be Wild (perhaps with chubby, middle-aged men and ukes involved it should be 'Mild'), David Byrne's Psycho Killer, Rock Around The Clock, or just bout anything else you can think of that seems utterly incongruous, the UOGB does it all; with wit, aplomb and (not just middle) class. The UOGB stresses music is playful; or should be (literally and figuratively).
Perhaps that's why we can, on the one hand, laugh at the precocity we prejudicially imagine in attempting Beethoven while, on the other, marvel at and revel in the (yes) surprisingly fragile beauty the orchestra achieves with that immortal ode. UOGB was, after all, formed, circa 1985, with fun in mind. I wonder if the members ever, in their wildest dreams, expected their first gig to sell out, let alone to be on an almost endless world tour. Soon after their stint down under, they'll be playing Carnegie Hall. And not for the first time. Nor the last, I'm sure. When the played there in 2010, The New York Times cited the concert as one of the very best of that year.
British journal, The Guardian made the distinction that UOGB don't merely play music, but play with music. As outrageous femme fatale Christa Hughes (who happened to be sitting all but next to me) observed, this orchestra sports incredible arrangements. Wheatus' Teenage Dirtbag is played with as much delicacy and finesse as Ludwig's 9th, giving it a whole new complexion. The ukes are as one in a pizzicato that sounds almost renaissance.
Orange Blossom Special might've been penned by Ervin T. Rouse in 1938, but it was the man in black that probably made it most famous and the ukes seem to capture something of the spirit of both. Although it's almost certainly the best-known fiddle tune of the last century, no one's likely to pine for violin since, again, the orchestration is so damn fine.
Anarchy In The UK becomes an easygoing folk tune, as down-home as the former, with more than a hint of bluegrass. It's as if their taking subversion and subverting it all over again. Malcolm McLaren, it seems to me, always had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, so is bound to approve. The ukes even turn it into a singalong. You probably wouldn't have heard a chorus of 'anarchy' 'round the pianola in days now turned to sepia (my niece and nephew actually seem to believe the world used to be black-and-white in 'the olden times'), but you would've heard it from young and old, but more old than young, at the SOH some evenings ago.
Grace Jones' Slave To The Rhythm becomes something strangely, almost discomfitingly, poignant; oddly, perhaps, all the mores for the fact of it being sung in this company by a white woman, with affecting vibrato, as if quivering at the song's alleged allusion to slavery.
My dog has fleas. And loving it!
Les Currie Presentations & Sean McKenna presents
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Venue: Concert Hall | Sydney Opera House
Date: 6 March, 2012
Tickets: $99 – $79