The grey hair brigade and the middle-aged men in striped scarves were much in evidence as we arrived at Birmingham’s newly refurbished Town Hall for what was our eagerly awaited first live encounter with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB). Don’t let this put you off if you are the right side of fifty though; ukulele playing is about to take off as the new craze and the oldies are leading the way!
The line-up of 6 men and 2 women, wearing an unassuming air along with their formal evening wear and carrying all sizes of ukuleles, walked onto the stage to a warm welcome from the capacity crowd.
Over the past 25 years, since forming ‘as a bit of fun’ according to their website, they have been performing to sell-out audiences worldwide. The fun still comes through as they play music of all types, re-worked in their own humorous and quirky style. Don’t let this fool you though; the musical talent of this band is immense. The dexterity of the playing is breathtaking (despite comments such as that aimed at the larger than life Richie having sausage fingers — Bratwurst sausages at that, this being a venue close by the annual Christmas German Market). The accompanying singing is pitch perfect too, and it is obvious from the start that this is a group of very accomplished musicians.
The UOGB have built up a large and wide-ranging repertoire of material featured on studio and live albums, compilations and DVDs. Favourites include Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, the theme from Shaft and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ (a la Simon and Garfunkel). How would the Sex Pistols react to their iconic piece being played as a ballad-cum-folk song with a singalong chorus? Maybe Johnny Rotten would approve now he is endorsing Country Life butter.
This being Christmas time, there was a healthy sprinkling of seasonal offerings. The opening number of Sleigh Bells set the mood, followed by a ‘Black Country waltz’ – Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas’ as a ballad. However, there was plenty of variety too; jazz, rock, blues, and an incredible whistling solo from the ‘newcomer’ Jonty. This was allegedly his audition piece when he joined the group 18½ years ago. The ‘final’ piece was a rendition of ‘Nirvana’ featuring the very longhaired Dave releasing his locks from their ponytail and head banging.
The performance was interspersed with a lot of dry humour in the form of banter between band members; when Richie proclaimed that as a boy he had wanted to be a ukulele player when he grew up, the comment came back that he couldn’t be both. A delay while some re-tuning was taking place (apparently the ukulele is very difficult to keep in tune) led to the comment from Dave that he may have evolved before the next song started. The inevitable comment back was “we can always hope”! Peter’s very straight and serious version of ‘I Can Boogie’ was introduced as a European folk song with some mention of ‘Eurovision’ that raised a laugh. This passed us by at the time but we have since found out that one of Peter’s previous claims to fame is of being a Eurovision song contest finalist.
Their departure stage left, after rapturous applause, was followed by their reappearance, to the comment that they couldn’t get off that side. The encore started with a brilliant medley of tunes including ‘Hey Jude’, ‘If I were a Carpenter’ and ‘Angels’ played over each other, showing what George claimed; that there are few original tunes ever written, and how various popular songs have the same basic melody. If you’re struggling to imagine what this sounds like, check out this video of an earlier performance: http://www.youtube.co m/watch?v=79D8SRrqX5U. The eagerly awaited ‘Yorkshire Folk Song’ by Kate Bush was a fitting end to a great evening. If you get the chance to see them perform, don’t pass it up; you’d be missing out on one of the funniest and most surreal performances you’re likely to see.
Review – Shirley Williams
Photos – Helen Williams