Anarchy on the uke

Little orchestra makes big sounds on the “bonsai guitar”

All together: “My dog has fleas!”

All together: “My dog has fleas!”

photo by Melanie MacTavish

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Thursday, April 11, at Laxson Auditorium.

Laxson Auditorium
Chico State

In the past six months, the hallowed halls of Laxson Auditorium have hosted such wondrous oddities as Chinese acrobats, Shaolin warriors and giant dinosaur puppets. Even considering these, one of the most awesomely surreal moments of Chico Performances’ 2012-13 schedule was a near-capacity audience of 8- to 80-year-olds singing “Anarchy in the U.K.” in unison, led by eight tuxedoed ukulelists.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain shared its decidedly less caustic arrangement of the Sex Pistols classic (“I is the enemy, I is the ukulele”) and many more songs one wouldn’t usually associate with the odd instrument. Indeed, it’s rare enough to see two ukulele players together on stage, let alone eight armed with instruments ranging from small and smaller to downright tiny.

The orchestra is dedicated to smashing any preconceived notions the uninitiated may have about the instrument, and the members accomplish this through a fantastic mix of humor, excellent musicianship, and an amazing repertoire of songs spanning decades and styles.

For example, a quick sampling of the orchestra’s set list that evening includes such varied pieces as the aforementioned punk anthem, Prince’s “Kiss,” David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and The Beverly Hillbillies theme song.

Not only are the six men and two women who make up the orchestra consummate musicians, but they’re also all great singers, trading lead vocals and adding spot-on background harmonies. Some of the best moments were provided when the group’s two female members, Hester Goodman and Kitty Lux, took lead vocal duties for Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” and the creepy-as-hell Nancy Sinatra classic “Bang Bang.”

The orchestra generally avoids tunes commonly associated with the ukulele, but broke this rule for the evening when inspired by Sonic Ukes—a group of local ukulelists who performed in the foyer before the show—to play “Tiptoe through the Tulips,” originally written in 1929 but re-injected into the American psyche by Tiny Tim in 1968.

A definite crowd favorite was the “Theme from Shaft,” which the orchestra turned into a tale partly about the exploits of a badass private dick—as per Isaac Hayes’ intention—and partly about 1800s British musicologist Cecil Sharp. This is a prime example of the players’ offbeat sense of humor, which is (trust me) a lot funnier when they do it than when a reviewer tries to explain it.

In fact, the group’s antics and banter were as funny as the music was well-played, and the orchestra is as much a comedy troupe as it is a band of crack musicians. Some of the best moments came when musicianship and ludicrous humor collided, as when at least six of the members joined in, one by one, to play the same ukulele all at once.

The Ukulele Orchestra didn’t just smash through genres over the course of the evening, but sometimes in the course of a single song. During the first encore, the members bickered over which song to play—a classical piece by George Frideric Handel or something by Frank Sinatra, Roberta Flack, Gloria Gaynor or something else. So, without changing the chord progression, they did them all—Handel, “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Killing Me Softly,” “I Will Survive,” plus “The Theme from Love Story” and “Hotel California.” Different members sang a verse from each separate piece individually, added them on top of each other into a glorious cacophony the second time through.

As the orchestra cheekily noted, its CDs are available online, but a great deal of the group’s catalog can be found for free on YouTube. Whether you think you like ukuleles or not, these performers are worth checking out.