If you were concerned that the ukulele boom of a few years ago had forever coated the instrument in a glaze of hipsterdom, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain should allay your fears. The eight-piece ensemble (as represented in its lively show at Jordan Hall on Friday evening) was about as hammy as it gets, by turns asserting its able musicianship and then undercutting it with eager mugging and comic antics possessing all the sharp edge of a wet noodle.
Hip to be square? Not quite. But, fun? Absolutely.
The conceit of the 30-year-old ensemble (its founding leaders are George Hinchliffe and Kitty Lux) is a mixing of the high and the low. It takes the stage in black tie to play inventive arrangements of frothy pop hits and baby boomer-approved classic rock favorites. The not-so-secret secret is that the band members sure have chops, instrumentally, vocally, and as arrangers.
When Hinchliffe ripped off a fast-fingered solo in a rollicking instrumental tune he’d introduced as “an English blues,” while Richie Williams picked out a melodic lead line and most of their bandmates chopped out rapid rhythm chords, it sounded like a cookin’ bluegrass band. (Hinchliffe played a tenor uke, Williams a baritone variety, Peter Brooke Turner a bass uke, and the others worked with the smaller, more familiar soprano variety.)
Later, a bit of music by George Frideric Handel served as the bed upon which each musician sang a verse or refrain of a pop song, mostly in unison; the effect was a virtuosic display of vocal arrangement that also offered the audience the chance to chuckle as it recognized each song. A gorgeous take on David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” sung by the excellent Turner ably translated the pathos of the original, until it was undercut by a similar gag. It was often hard to hear the music through the sight-gags.
It’s not quite novelty, not quite serious. But for most of the sold-out audience, it seemed to be just the ticket.
So maybe I’m the fuddy-duddy for preferring to just enjoy a song without the band leader feigning annoyance because someone’s solo had gone too long, or another player shaking his instrument above his head as if to dislodge a lost item from the sound hole. It felt like permission to laugh at everything in case we “weren’t impressed.” Which is ironic, because other than that, I was.