Silent or rowdy? Belly Up working it |

Silent or rowdy? Belly Up working it

Ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro made his Belly Up debut this past Saturday.
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times |

The achievements of Belly Up and its owner Michael Goldberg have become so common in frequency that they no longer seem otherworldly. Widespread Panic for a three-night run in a 450-capacity club? Why not? The Flaming Lips coming for a two-show New Year’s Eve stand? Well, of course. The Pixies squeezing in a club show on an upcoming tour that is going to pack theaters and ballrooms across the country? Hey, it’s Belly Up; it’s Aspen; we’re privileged.

But Goldberg was not even in attendance for the latest achievement that stretched credulity. When Hawaiian ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro made his Belly Up debut this past Saturday, the crowd, even those sizable, was quiet. If not for one drunken quasi-cowboy making the occasional whoop, the atmosphere might even have been described as silent. Shimabukuro played solo, completely instrumental, on a four-string instrument that could pass for a toy, and you could clearly make out every note of what he was doing. There was no need for hushing. The crowd was endlessly respectful — give yourselves a big hand. (But wait till the end of the song, please.)

As big an applause goes to Shimabukuro himself. The 36-year-old is a string virtuoso, approaching the level of banjoist Béla Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer or dobroist Jerry Douglas. Shimabukuro coaxed unfathomable beauty out of the tiny ukulele, and his range was exceptional. His melodic and harmonic touch on original compositions and a traditional Hawaiian tune was mesmerizing, but he was also able to crank up the power on a rocker like “Dragon.” (“Crank up” and “rocker” are relative terms, given his instrument. It should be noted his arsenal includes a lot of effects pedals.) Shimabukuro’s rich musical imagination was on display in a no-joke cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that had the audience singing along (in a moderate, respectful tone).

Shimabukuro’s stage presence threatened to go over the top. But he is filled with such genuine enthusiasm and such a sweet nature that it didn’t become bothersome. Once his set was over, he came off stage to greet whoever wanted to spend time with him, and he didn’t even insist they meet him at the merchandise booth, where he might have hawked his CDs.

“Shimabukuro coaxed unfathomable beauty out of the tiny ukulele, and his range was exceptional.”

Word will certainly get out around town about Shimabukuro, and the next time he plays here the crowd will be bigger, from a bigger cross-section of the population, and with greater expectations. I shudder to think what this will do to the show of respect on the dance floor. Then again, as the poet said, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks.” And on at least one occasion, to quiet a Belly Up crowd.

In contrast, the Belly Up audience was appropriately loud and rowdy on Friday night. A noteworthy offseason Belly Up weekend kicked off with a powerhouse show by Tea Leaf Green. Hailing from San Francisco, and with more than a touch of jam to their style, the quintet might prompt visions of guitar noodling. But Tea Leaf Green has an aggressive pound to their sound, thanks in part to a two-man drum section, but even more so to guitarist Josh Clark. Bassist Reed Mathis is an exceptional musician who also plays with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and in various other ensembles. And keyboardist Trevor Garrod, the primary vocalist, adds a pleasant touch of pop-soul to the mix.

Opening for Tea Leaf Green was Whitewater Ramble, yet another Colorado band who is taking string-band music in yet another direction, with elements of rock and blues.

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