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The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain @ Town Hall, Birmingham, 28th June 2012

Birmingham’s Town Hall built in 1834 for ‘just’ £25,000. In 1996 it closed for a £30m+ refurbishment, re-opening its doors 11 years later. This iconic building in the centre of Birmingham, with it’s beautiful interior, has played host to a multitude of legends over the centuries from classical writers like Charles Dickens to rock gods Led Zeppelin. And here on this Thursday evening – a Hawaiian and a folk twist – welcome to the world of that is The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. 

So that’s a potted history of the venue and tonight’s ‘Ukes’ performance, specially commissioned by the Town Hall / Symphony Hall, celebrates Cecil Sharp, who in the late part of the 1800 into the twentieth century made it his mission to ‘collect’ folk songs from across the UK, Europe and America. He was a man with a notebook, ‘recording’ the songs and the people, who performed them, in middle of fields – “a bit of a strange thing to do.” But without him, many songs would have disappeared and many would have not been re-interpreted into music we recognize today.

And so to the ‘Ukes’. A band of brothers and sisters, all singing, all strumming, using instruments brought with loose change, who believe that anything is up for musical interpretation – as long as it is with a Uke. The Ukulele is, apparently, of Hawaiian descent – after being inspired by similar stringed instruments taken there by Portuguese immigrants. And they come in different sizes of commonly four tones: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.

The ‘Ukes’ formed in 1985 as a bit of fun. Well since then, their journey has took them all over the world – “a world tour with only hand luggage”; their music used in films, plays and commercials and including collaborations with Madness, David Arnold, The Ministry of Sound, Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) and The Kaiser Chiefs to name a few. The ‘Ukes’ are Dave Suich, Peter Brooke Turner, Hester Goodman, George Hinchliffe, Richie Williams, Kitty Lux, Will Grove-White and Jonty Bankes.

Tonight’s exploration of The Cecil Sharp Songbook: ‘Waly Waly on the Ukulele’ is sold out. On the stage are seven seats, which are taken up by the seven members, in full black tie dress – six playing ukes, one on a double bass.  And introduction to tonight’s event: “This is a one off occasion to see the show…. we’ll do the show…. even if you don’t like it…!” First up ‘English Hornpipes in Slow 3’ from 1693, followed by ‘The Tree in the Wood’ – notable for appearing in the film ‘The Wicker Man’. Sung by George, it has the round-robin effect of ‘I knew an old lady who swallowed a fly…’ –   “Gawd-blimey” as George gasps for breath after the rounds of repetition.

Joke: “How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “ Four – one to change the light bulb – three to complain it’s electric!”

‘Bonnie Lightmore’ is from the Napoleonic wars. Next up, from 1918, a ditty used by Fairport Convention and notably the same melody as The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Many of these songs have multiple names and multiple interpretations and multiple versions – but you do recognise so many. ‘The Princes’ has an Elizabethan vibe and we get a rendition of a track that has again morphed into many variations including ‘Scarborough Fair.’

The next one – ‘Butchers Boy’ is akin to Napalm Death (!) or maybe early Sabbath (?) – well note quite sure about that one – but it is a dark song, about hanging and coffins (many of these folk songs have a dark fairy tale side) performed appropriately darkly by the ‘Ukes’ – a song Nick Cave would appreciate. The next sing is indeed the basis of The Blockhead’s ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Rock’ to which the Ukes morph between traditional and Dury’s lyrics.

An ‘interlude’ for the interval and we’re back in for the next batch of songs. Christmas carol ‘Down in Your Forest’ (which has nothing about Christmas in it) is clearly the inspiration behind The Stranglers ‘Golden Brown.’ The ‘Huntsman’s Delight’ or ‘The Keeper’ was banned ‘cos it was so rude – Sharp ‘cleaned up’ the lyrics – “more like Carry on Hunting!” – but you know this one – found myself singing along “Hey down, ho down, derry derry down, Among the leaves so green-o…”

‘The Unfortunate Lad’ or ‘St Thomas’s Hospital’ (a leper hospital) – could be said to be the tune behind The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs.’ ‘Blackbird’s and Thrushes’ about squatters (no – these squatters could live in property if they built it on common land between dawn and dusk, and by dusk had smoke coming from it). A ‘William Shatner’ moment – this song is spoken rather than sung. ‘Waly, Waly, The Water is Wide’ has been interpreted by U2;  ‘Hold on Hold’ is clearly ‘The Magic Bus.’ And we complete with ‘Edward’ – “it’s all about… Edward.”

“If you haven’t enjoyed the show, don’t worry, you never see it again!” The audience response is positive – it has been all night!

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are indeed a totally different experience. They’re fun. And chatty. This show was different to their norm, but still fascinating in a way to hear tunes of the past, brought to the present, interpreted on a Uke. The ‘Ukes’ are at their best – giving it some, singing in harmony. Dressed in black tie, they play this little stringed instrument – and they have become more than just a fringe freak – it is a balance between the serious and the hilarious. And these ‘Ukes’ have inspired a million clubs groups and individuals who have took up this little stringed instrument.

So if you fancy an alternative, alternative, night out, for something completely different – then go catch the Ukes. And as for that strange man with his notebook, without Cecil Sharp, music of today would be entirely different. We applaud him for doing something pretty outlandish all those years ago – because very possible without you – the world of music may have been a very different place.