Here come the ukulele stars

02:03, Feb 18 2013

Review: Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra with James Hill and The Big Muffin Serious Band at The Rhododendron Lawn.

Ukuleles have become enormously popular in recent years and thankfully for many parents are replacing the recorder as a first instrument to learn for children.

And with the rise of the ukulele also comes the ukulele stars.

The crowd at the Rhododendron Lawn on Sunday night were treated to an abundance of these.

The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra more than delivered with their rich sound ukuleles, vocal harmonies and solos, and a double bass, playing old songs that many of us know and love, but have never sounded quite like this.

It is lovely to see a large band like this having no single front person, but all taking turns at stepping forward at different times to reveal their talents.

This group of accomplished musicians and they are as comfortable with each other as with their instruments.

Canadian James Hill is known as being possibly the best (and some say sexiest!) ukulele player in the world and is a man who has obviously spent a ridiculous amount of time with a ukulele in his hands.

Accompanied by his partner and talented cellist Anne Janelle, this act wowed and charmed the audience. In true virtuoso style, James is able to simultaneously play individual notes, strum, and produce a range of drum sounds from his instrument.

To this effect, James played the best version of Michael Jackson's Billy Jean that I have ever heard (bar the original -maybe).

In another track James used ice hockey tape and chopsticks to turn his acoustic ukulele into something that sounded like a cross between a drum machine and a synth.

The crowd was also treated to some old time jazz, bluegrass, folk, blues, and rock, as well as more than a few laughs.

Armed with tea-chest bass, kazoos, hedge trimmers, and off course ukuleles, local legends The Big Muffin Serious Band were as great, and funny, as ever.

I particularly enjoyed their Eastern European folk rendition of Yellow Polka Dot Bikini with Support from the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

Following a raucous demand for an encore, the evening wrapped up with the musicians from all three acts on stage at once and a two part audience sing-along.
I left the gardens feeling musically satiated and with a smile on my face.