Exactly one month ago, on June 29th, I attended a concert in Wellington, New Zealand. The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra performed to a sold-out hometown crowd in one of the country’s most acoustically-pleasing auditoriums, The Michael Fowler Centre, and they blew the roof off the place. Yes, this 12 member, 11-ukulele-ensemble actually blew the roof off the mutha. Eleven ukuleles and one double bass. Yes, that’s right- 11ukuleles. I feel icky just typing that. The ukulele. The red-headed stepchild of the acoustic guitar. Eleven of them on stage at the same time and I actually liked it? Maybe I’ve been in New Zealand too long…
[All Photos by Matt Mueller]
I think its fair to say the ukulele has never been one of my favorite instruments. If I were asked two months ago to come up with a top ten list of my favorite musical instruments, ukulele might rank 37, just behind the French horn. But in the hands of these skilled ukeists (ukeleists? Ukelers?) this four-stringed-mandolin-wannabe not only becomes a pleasing instrument, but an impressive one. (You can see why its taken me a month to write this review- I’ve been struggling with such conflicting internal emotions. Someone hold me.)
The WIUO (as they will henceforth be referred to… since I’m into the whole brevity thing) were founded about 5 years ago in Wellington, New Zealand. The twelve member group play an unusual combination of modern hits, classic rock, kiwi standards and original compositions. In New Zealand, the band is pretty well known, thanks in no small part to a devoted hometown following, many high profile performances, two albums, and the recent success of founding member Bret McKenzie (yes, that Brett. Brit? Briiit.) Internationally, this “international” orchestra has yet to make a very big mark. However, if they continue to play shows like this one, all of that could change. READ ON for more of Neeko’s Uke-tastic review…
The band entered from stage right and took their places across a semi-circle of bar stools, set up across the stage amidst a haphazard array of stage-monitors, rugs, and bizarre lamps and lampshades of all shapes and sizes (Some hung precariously above the performers’ heads from invisible strings). I immediately felt like I had been invited into a private performance in a gypsy‘s living room. I also kind of felt like a “welcome intruder” as everyone in the 2000+ capacity auditorium seemed to know one another, or were either related to or married to someone in the band. However, any sense of unease or ‘not belonging’ completely disappeared as they broke into a rousing rendition (yes, ukuleles can apparently be rousing) of the Cream classic Sunshine of Your Love halfway through their first set.
It was at this point I realized that not only are these people snazzy dressers, but they’ve got pretty good taste in cover songs. It was also at this point that I began to hear the twelve wonderful vocalists shine through the wall of ukes that had dominated my senses for the first few tunes. This is a group that can harmonize, and they do it well. No small feat for such a large ensemble.
The band played two 45 minute sets. Highlights included a wonderful original tune called Walk in the Park (with notable whistling solo by Kiwi television star Amanda Billing), a heart-wrenching rendition of Roly Salley’s Killing the Blues and a rippin’ set-ending version of Electric Light Orchestra’s Livin’ Thing. Other highlights – Bret McKenzie surprises the audience and joins the band on stage on the gong during Toto sing-along Africa -in a gorilla suit, and my first ever indoor Mexican Wave (Yes, that’s what they call the stadium ‘wave’ down here. I’m not sure what’s so Mexican about it, but I’m pretty sure if I were Mexican, I’d be somehow offended).
(A note on Bret McKenzie in a gorilla suit: Although the crowd was obviously pleased to see local-boy-does-well rejoin the old band for a few tunes, and although Brett has obviously completed some ‘Andy Serkis-esque’ study of gorilla body movement, I was less than thrilled to see him back in Wellington. Bret, a very funny and talented performer, is a very shit driver. He probably doesn’t remember, but he almost hit me with his crappy little hatchback while I was crossing the street near the Miramar shops about three and-a-half months ago. Apparently he’s gone a bit Hollywood and forgotten that pedestrians have the right of way. FIGWIT my ass, Britt!!)
As the second set played on, the normally reserved Kiwi audience loosened up, and dancers left their seats to fill the space between the first row and the stage. (From my vantage point in the balcony, I had a really good time acting out my own, internal Simon-Cowell-monologue, critiquing the brave dancers below). The show ended on a very high note with a tune the WIUO has become well known for playing, Outkast’s Hey Ya. Check out their energetic take on this tune here: