Touring ukulele hero Jake Shimabukuro sold out the 800-seat Jaqua Concert Hall to an audience of a wide age range on Friday night.
The ukulele player, renowned for his ability to play all parts to popular cover songs, performed in Eugene, promoting his new album, “Nashville Sessions.” The record is his first with all original material and reached No. 3 on Billboard’s charts for Contemporary Jazz Albums. “Nashville Sessions” is a daring album: Shimabukuro jams in a trio with the ukulele hooked up to distortion effects on most tracks — a departure from the soothing sounds of his previous albums. But he switched on the overdrive once during his concert, sticking with the uke’s natural sound.
Shimabukuro was accompanied on stage by one of his bandmates featured on “Nashville Sessions,” bassist Nolan Verner, who he fist-bumped after almost every song. The duo dished out many new hits from the album including “6/8” and “Celtic Tune.” Shimabukuro said to the audience the latter was named that way after he and Nolan thought the melody sounded like a Celtic folk tune.
“We’ll come up with better titles on the next one,” Shimabukuro said to laughs from the concert-goers.
Shimabukuro also played “Tritone,” another track from his latest album, which included parts of Hawaiian composer Byron Yasui’s Ukulele Concerto “Campanella.” On “Nashville Sessions,” Shimabukuro plays overdriven guitar solos on the contemporary classical piece, but he kept the effects clean for Eugene. The power was in his playing as Shimabukuro banged out chords that were distorted on the album, and his and Verner’s fingers crawled up and down their fretboards aggressively in unison.
University of Oregon senior Ben Jones watched from the audience with his parents, “I really liked [his overall performance], it’s exciting, very full for just two instruments,” he said.
But Shimabukuro is known for his variety, and his most captivating performance of the night came was when he played “Go For Broke.” The song comes from his 2011 album “Peace Love Ukulele,” and is dedicated to the Japanese-Americans who fought in Normandy during WWII, while the government placed many of their families in internment camps. Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the attacks at Pearl Harbor.
“I guess for me, especially being an Asian-American living in this country, I realize that I have a much better life today because of the sacrifices that they’ve made,” Shimabukuro said. “This is just a piece for all of our veterans and men and women out there serving.” He called upon all veterans to raise their hands — six did on the bottom seats — and thanked them for their service.
An intense silence dropped around the room as he percussively strummed the ukulele to the sound of a drum march. Shimabukuro held his head up throughout, eyes closed, letting out a loud grunt as the song crescendoed. Watching Shimabukuro’s emotional involvement with the music expressed a tribute where words, or lyrics, couldn’t.
Shimabukuro would eventually shred away with his amp set to overdrive, performing “Dragon” from his eponymous 2005 album, which he had since altered into a rock song by adding distortion effects. He grinded out Van Halen-esque fretboard tapping after looping a set of undistorted ukulele chords.
The encore of the night was a celebration of sorts as Shimabukuro started with the song that launched him into fame with a 2006 viral video on YouTube — his cover of George Harrison’s “While my Guitar Gently Weeps.” The encore developed into an electrifying chicken-scratch funky jam he weaved into his rendition — showing off how his style has developed, with the release of his first all-original album.
After the concert, a winding line of fans filled the Jaqua Concert Hall ballroom waiting to get Shimabukuro’s autograph on albums and ukuleles. Sold out performances at the Jaqua Concert Hall are uncommon, and according to Kristina Gribskov, an administrator with the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts, the nonprofit hosting the event, they were not expecting the show to be sold out.
“If we were expecting a sellout, usually we are going to look for a venue that is going to have a larger seating capacity like at the Hult Center. We rent out over there a few times a year,” Gribskov said.
Among those waiting in the line to meet Shimabukuro was Eugene resident Mike Kapono, “I mainly like how [Shimabukuro] plays and takes the ukulele to the next level,” Kapono said, “it’s something that always inspires me and is something to shoot for.” Kapono picked up ukulele 10 years ago, despite playing guitar since a child — he loved the sound of the uke’s nylon strings.
Kapono had nine of Shimabukuro’s 13 albums signed and has attended all four shows Shimabukuro played at The Shedd Institute. Kapono brought his remaining four records for Shimabukuro to leave his autograph on, including a copy of “Nashville Sessions.”
Eugenians both young and old plucked and strummed away on ukuleles as they waited to meet with Shimabukuro. After the show, Shimabukuro said that he appreciates the age diversity among his fan base.
“I especially feel, being a dad now, that there aren’t a lot of events out there where everyone can come, three generations of a family can come together and have a good time,” Shimabukuro said. “So it’s really nice that the ukulele is an instrument that reaches out to a very wide demographic of people.”