It’s been a few years since I last saw the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) playing live. At that time they were fairly little known – compared to now – and possibly all the more surprising, original and funny for it. Since then they have swept to all heights of popularity or, as their own website puts it, ‘are often to blame for the current ukelele revival which is sweeping the globe’.
This weekend at the Blackheath Halls in South East London the orchestra demonstrated that they still have the virtuosic skill and their original way of interpreting all different types of music. They could do with updating their jokes though or, better still, they could even try leaving them out. The music is good enough.
No longer for the UOGB the smaller music halls. At the 2009 Proms they were invited to play at the ultimate music hall, the Royal Albert, and led a mass Ode to Joy for 1008 ukeleles.
Watching this clip, I found it hard not to feel moved at the sight of a most eccentric bunch of Brits, novices and musicians alike, strumming along to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and then holding their ukes aloft at the end of the song.
The reference to 8 is this octet, who have been playing together for 20 years. Musical director George Hinchliffe and Kitty Lux (a ukelele playing Jo Brand with a rich, deep voice) first formed the band as a laugh in 1985 and after finding success abroad first, notably in Sweden and Japan, the orchestra went full time in 2001.
Each member of the group is a highly talented uke player and more than one of them have voices of angels. Some of my favourite numbers are when they all sing together, and sometimes different songs at the same time. This time we heard their fab rendition of David Bowie’s Life on Mars vs Frank Sinatra’s My Way vs Stevie Wonder’s (or any other version of) For Once in my Life. I have heard it before but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
Another ‘mash up’ which works really well is the clever arrangement of several popular songs which are sung in a round and include Fly me to the Moon, Killing Me Softly and I Will Survive.
Like a ‘normal’ orchestra, there are no backing tracks, just the music and voices. The sound effects can be quite amazing. The bass ukelele player Jonty Bankes has an amazing gift of whistling. One of their songs which they have kept in their repertoire is The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. What is it with these westerns and the uke? I’d love to see the UOGB do a mash up of this with the Brockley Ukelele Group’s Rawhide. Odd maybe, comical definitely, it just works.
One of the most enjoyable parts about going to a UOGB gig like this is that you, whoever you are, will know most of the songs – and you will probably never have heard them done in this way before. Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK as a campfire ditty? They usually steer clear of their fellow famous uke player George Formby, but they do sometimes do a Cossack version of Leaning on the Lamppost. Do you like Hawkwind? Grace Jones? Gnarls Barkley? Weezer? Not a set of artists you would put together, but here they are all on the same bill. For me, this is the crux of the popularity of the group, and why I think they are so good. They believe in music and good songs, no matter how ‘cool’ or not some of the songs are deemed to be. Like the Proms, this is music for the masses, which I can enjoy along with my family or friends (though not with my husband or all my friends, I do hasten to add). Judging from this weekend, it is also music for an audience of all ages.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain put on a great fun show and, with a few less tired jokes and more new material, come highly recommended. And if you are a person dubiously underestimating the versatility or sound quality of the ukelele (yes, I have even met a few of you!) you might get a nice surprise if you look these people up the next time they are in your area. I for one would be delighted to sit around a campfire with them, as long as they are the ones who put up the tents and who do all the singing and playing.