07 March 2009: EJ Thomas Hall, Akron, Ohio
Between a trip to the Islands and the opportunity to review a few of his past albums, I fell in love with Jake Shimabukuro’s music. But living in the Midwest, I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the opportunity to see him live. But it’s a funny thing about expectations, they can easily be blown away. We are fortunate to live in Northeast Ohio, which has some strong musical roots and sturdy cultural leanings, so maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I found out Shimabukuro was going to be making an appearance at EJ Thomas Hall at the University of Akron.
My parents are huge fans of all things Hawaii, including ukulele music and Shimabukuro, so I knew they’d be up for the show. And, with cheap ticket prices (and no service charges when purchased at the box office), we couldn’t resist bringing the kiddo along with us too. Although only seven, he had a great time, was well-behaved, and announced after the show that he’d like to see Shimabukuro again next time he comes to town to play.
I love Akron. And I love what EJ is doing with their Stage Door series. It’s another example of outside the box thinking to keep things interesting with the economy doing what it’s doing and continue to bring different artists to town in a unique setting. Ten dollars a person, all general admission. But instead of the audience in the auditorium and the artist on the stage, everyone’s on the stage together... the artist and the audience. It ends up being a warm, nightclub-like setting with the darkened auditorium itself as the backdrop. Filled with black-clad tables and chairs, candlelight illumination, a cash bar and decadent desserts, the atmosphere is intimate and perfect for an artist like Shimabukuro.
Shimabukuro performed solo, without a full band. Just a guy, his ukulele, and 500 fans. The 13-song main set was supplemented by Shimabukuro’s engaging personality coming through in both the music and the friendly chatter with the sold out, standing room only crowd.
As much as I enjoy his covers (and his rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life” is simply stunning), my favorites of the night were mostly original compositions. Songs like the road-trippin’ “Five Dollars Unleaded”, the playful “Me and Shirley T.”, and the Bruce Lee-inspired and Eddie Van Halen-influenced “Dragon” were all high-points.
The kiddo was particularly fond of a late-set three-song stretch that included Chick Corea’s “Spain”, Shimabukuro’s bluegrass flavored “Orange World” (my favorite tune of the night), and George Harrison’s "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".
The crowd was never shy about showing its appreciation of Shimabukuro, punctuating the night with whoops and whistles and spontaneous applause throughout the set and within single songs. The encore, a moving interpretation of “Ave Maria” followed by a crowd-requested, rollicking version “Crazy G”, seemed as spontaneous as I’ve seen in these days of preplanned sets and choreographed-within-an-inch-of-their-life shows.
Shimabukuro seemed genuinely surprised and appreciative of the multiple standing ovations over the course of the night. Afterwards, Shimabukuro walked off the side of the stage and hung around to sell some merch, talk with the crowd, sign ticket stubs and CD covers, and pose for pictures with anyone who asked. He comes off as a really nice guy who’s as amazed as anyone that he’s touring the world as a ukulele player.