Prom Night: The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Live at the Royal Albert Hall

On Tuesday, 18 August 2009, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was a headline act at the BBC Proms, an annual festival more formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade.  The BBC Proms goes on for about ten weeks and includes dozens of concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall, as well as chamber music performances in nearby Cadogan Hall and a variety of lectures, films, and other fringe events devoted to music.  The UOGB’s performance at this year’s Proms was a big hit; here’s a high-resolution picture of the audience (beware, it can hypnotize you; I just spent three solid minutes trying to follow people’s lines of sight and figure out who was looking at whom,) and an article from The New York Times (the NYT piece is the same one I linked to in my review of the UOGB’s album Live in London #2, if it looks familiar to you that may be why.)  

A DVD of the performance went to press on the 3rd of this month, and today a copy of that DVD arrived at the Acilius household. 

The UOGB has already released audio tracks of ten of the fifteen songs from this set.  Performances of “Anarchy in the UK,” “Life on Mars,” “Teenage Dirtbag,” “Pinball Wizard,” “The Dambusters March,” “Melange,” and “Wuthering Heights” can be found on Live in London #1; “Silver Machine” and “Thunderball” are on Live in London #2; “Psycho Killer” is on Precious Little.  Two songs, “Anarchy in the UK” and “Life on Mars,” are already available on their previous DVD, Anarchy in the Ukulele.  The five numbers that are new to disc are “Puffin’ Billy,” “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Danse Macabre,” a fragment of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “arranged for 1008 ukuleles”; and “Jerusalem.”  Of those five, “Puffin’ Billy” is chiefly a setup for “Anarchy in the UK,” and “The Ride of the Valkyries,” while an astounding example of musicianship, turns out to be an extended intro for “Silver Machine.”  Is it really worth  paying £15.00 plus postage for so much old rope? 

I say yes, emphatically yes.  The disc records not only fifteen fine performances, but an extraordinary moment in the history of the ukulele.  The most anticipated number was the Beethoven fragment, the UOGB leading 1000 audience members in the “Ode to Joy.”  The camera pans through the audience, showing hundreds of ecstatic faces.  A DVD extra shows the rehearsal the UOGB did with the uke-bearing members of the audience beforehand.  The “Ode to Joy” is of course a setting of a poem about universal brotherhood; it’s a bit breath-taking to know that and see such a large and diverse crowd join in playing the piece.  It’s almost a shame that UOGB does such a good job with the “Ode to Joy”; I wish it could become part of their regular repertoire, but where will they find 1000 sidemen to accompany every performance? 

Emotions clearly ran high in the hall throughout the concert.  Towards the beginning, Dave Suich recalls his last visit to the Royal Albert Hall, when he paid five shillings to sit in the gallery and listen to Black Sabbath.  Peering up, apparently at the spot those five shillings had bought him, he seems amazed to be on stage.  When Hester introduces “Teenage Dirtbag,” she makes a joke that it’s a poignant song for her because she’d expected to be alone on Prom Night; as she mentions the 6000 people in the hall and tens of thousands more listening on BBC 3, she loses her comic timing and seems to choke up.  High definition usually isn’t a friend to anyone over 30; Hester is an exception.  She doesn’t look a tenth of her true age, and the flicker of emotion on her face in that moment is worth a great deal.  When I talked about Hester’s “Teenage Dirtbag” in my review of Live in London #1,  I summarized it as a “ballad of adolescent lesbian angst”; it’s sobering to see how many visitors still come to this site having googled “hester goodman lesbian.”  At the risk of drawing more of that traffic, I’ll say that the human race would be the poorer if some among us did not go through adolescent lesbian angst.  I’d go so far as to label adolescent sexual angst in all its forms as an indispensable part of the human experience.  Hester has produced a powerful testament to that form of adolescent angst, and my hat’s off to her for it.  Not only mine; Mrs Acilius turned to me as we were watching “Teenage Dirtbag” and said the song filled her with pride every time she hears Hester sing it. 

In a DVD extra showing the players getting ready, Kitty Lux confides to the camera that singing “Jerusalem” as a solo in the Royal Albert Hall is “a dream come true.”  Introducing it on stage, she confesses that she isn’t sure she has the “temerity” to do it.  She wasn’t feigning the nerves; she stumbles over the lines at one point, and at the end Richie and Will touch her shoulders to reassure her.  With so much strong feeling, it’s only right that by the end of the evening hundreds in the audience are waving their ukuleles above their heads in time with the music.

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all about weeping the tears of inspiration.  “Puffin’ Billy,” a tune used as the theme song for a number of radio and TV programs for small children, leads into an especially hilarious rendition of “Anarchy in the UK.”  “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Silver Machine” are a humorous pairing, and would get laughs even if Dave hadn’t made a comment comparing the “European” Wagner piece with the “British” rock tune.  Peter plays it cool singing “Thunderball,” letting the words get the laughs.  The moment in “Pinball Wizard” when the other seven shout at George to “Shu-duppa-yo-face!” is hilarious as audio, even funnier with video. 

I first heard Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” in school when I was a little boy.  The recording our music teacher played for us featured pizzicato very prominently.  I asked him what instrument that was; he said the violin, plucked rather than bowed.  I wanted to sign up for violin lessons on the spot.  What I really wanted, I now realize, was a ukulele.  The UOGB’s version of the piece lets ukuleles sound like themselves, rather than trying to use violins to substitute for them.  While George introduces the piece by warning us that the ukukele doesn’t have enough sustain to play the “Danse Macabre” quite the way Saint-Saens wrote it, the version they play is thoroughly excellent.  Not least in its ability to get the listener up and dancing. 

Most of the performances are the same musically as the versions on their albums, but the video adds a great deal nonetheless.  For example, listening to “Psycho Killer” on Precious Little, you hear a rousing song and suspect that it’s supposed to be funny somehow.  Seeing Will play the role of a seriously disturbed person as he sings about being a “psycho killer,” you laugh at the absurdity of the song, even while you want to dance.  

The obvious place to end the set was with the “Ode to Joy,” but since most of the audience had just attended a rehearsal of that one, it wouldn’t have been much of a climax.  The regular program ends rousingly enough with the “Dambusters March”; the first encore, “Melange,” would also have been a suitable conclusion, amazing the audience as it does with the UOGB’s ability to keep a common thread while each member of the band is alternating between 3 or 4 songs, most of which are solos.  The second encore, “Wuthering Heights,” gives the audience the satisfaction of shouting “Heathcliffe!” en masse, but otherwise seems to be an odd choice to wind the concert up.  Still, it’s very strong overall, and I recommend it highly.

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New Posts on Weirdomatic

After a hiatus of several weeks, two new galleries have gone up at one of our favorite sites, Weirdomatic.  The title of “Mary Poppins Lost Her Umbrella” reminded me of Hester Goodman’s “The Mary Poppins Experience“; the pictures in the gallery don’t have much to do with Mary Poppins, but show a number of interestingly designed umbrellas.  Such as:

The other gallery, “The Invisible One,” is a tribute to artist Liu Bo-Lin, who paints himself to match  his surroundings.  The effect is to make him seem transparent, or at least translicent.  For example:

And here’s a video from “The Mary Poppins Experience”:

New UOGB Video

The DVD of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s triumphant performance at August’s BBC Proms is available for preorder at their site.  They’ll start shipping the discs on 3 December.  They’ve posted this audience-member video to entice you:

We’ve placed our order, of course.  Look for a review in this space, likely sometime after Christmas.

Some Projects by Hester Goodman

Hester Goodman as Mary Poppins

Hester Goodman as Mary Poppins

Last month, Hester Goodman of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain posted videoclips on her YouTube channel promoting a couple of non-ukulele based projects she has worked on in the last few years.  Here’s one for “The Film Noir Show“; here’s one for “The Mary Poppins Experience.”   Each project mixes cabaret with elements of street theater, including guerrilla communication‘s refusal to notify the audience that what it is witnessing is a performance.  Notice the parts of “The Mary Poppins Experience,” about 2:09 and 2:55 into the video, where she’s on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the crowd is looking around uneasily, as if they hope a police officer will come soon.  “The Mary Poppins Experience” is extremely funny; “The Film Noir Show” may be as well, though it’s harder to judge by the video promotion.  It certainly is striking, at any rate.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s second live album

Live in London 2Day before yesterday, Mrs Acilius and I received our copy of the latest Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain CD release, Live in London 2.  We’ve been listening to it ever since. 

Because of their showmanship, the best introduction to the UOGB is a live show, and the next best is a video.  That’s why youtube has played such a big part in making them the international hit described in this New York Times piece and accompanying slideshow.  But they are excellent musicians, and their albums are all quite good.  Live in London 2 is not only as good as any of the others, but is probably the one that has the most to offer new fans.  It opens with four fast-paced numbers that have been responsible for a lot of dancing apud Acilium*  these last few days, “Dr Jazz,” “Silver Machine,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and “Rock Around the Clock” (audio samples are available on the album’s website.)  A couple of years ago, Mrs Acilius and I introduced the UOGB to her father with a video of them performing “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”  A former professional musician, my father-in law kept peering intently at the screen.  Every few seconds, he would exclaim “That thing only has four strings!”  The rich sound they extract from their little instruments really is worth an exclamation or two. 

Track five is “America” from West Side Story.  Hester Goodman sings the alto part as a solo, and the orchestra concentrates on the bottom half of the score.  This is rather daring musically, and the song was evidently a daring choice as well.  The lyrics make it clear that the speaker is a Puerto Rican living on the mainland.  Hester doesn’t try to put on a Puerto Rican accent; singing slowly and singing fewer notes than we might expect from a soloist, she manages to sound like a Puertoricena working hard to pass for an Englishwoman.  I’m not quite sure what the London audience expected them to do with a song that opens with “I like to be in America”; the laugh that rumbles through the hall when Hester sings those words suggests to me that they might have expected something sarcastic to follow those words, perhaps a novelty tune or a protest song.  What the UOGB actually delivers is a musically sophisticated and emotionally complex number, a quietly intense reverie that expresses both homesickness for San Juan (actually Hester does pronounce the word “San Juan” with a bit of a Puerto Rican accent) and anxiety about life on the mainland.  It’s very humane, very affecting, and it won quite a cheer at the end.

Track six is the theme from “Shaft.”  There was a studio version of this same song on their album Precious Little;  this version is quite different musically and also incorporates some new jokes.  Track seven, “Slave to the Rhythm,” makes me wish the musicologists among my friends didn’t always flee the moment I utter the word “ukulele”- like other songs where Kitty Lux sings the lead, it is rich in sonorities that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe.  “Slave to the Rhythm” is shorter and less complex than the song that has been Kitty’s masterpiece with the UOGB so far, “MacArthur Park” (included on The Secret of Life.)  Something on the scale of “MacArthur Park” might not have fit in the set at this point, but “Slave to the Rhythm” is perfect.

Track eight, “Two Pints of Lager,” is a novelty song.  I could have sworn Will Grove-White included a studio version of it on his solo album, Will Grove-White and the Others, but I’m holding my copy of that CD in my hand right now and it isn’t there.  It’s very funny, the perfect bridge between the heavy chromatics of “Slave to the Rhythm” and the lightness of the tracks that follow.   

How light are they?  Well, Dave Suich introduces track nine, “Only You,” as “a song about a tree and a sheep.”  Richie Williams (or maybe it’s Dave again, I can’t always tell their voices apart) introduces track ten, “On the Beach at Waikiki,” by announcing that “For all those who are wondering, Is it hot in here or is it just me?- It’s just me.”  Track eleven is Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je t’aime”; in the studio version of this song on The Secret of Life the UOGB had performed the song in true Gainsbourg fashion; the quasi-pornographic sighing and moaning is funny if you can visualize the Ukes doing it, since they seem like a group of people who’ve lived in the same house since birth.  If you don’t think of them that way, that version of the song may be sexy to you, but not funny, unless you laugh at Gainsbourg.  The version on this album is funny even if you’ve never seen the band.  George Hinchliffe imitates a cartoon Frenchman, complete with that weird nasal laugh that Anglophones believe the French have, Peter Brooke Turner boasts of his physique, and Kitty tries to flirt with a horrified Hester.  Indeed, Kitty shows a comic gift throughout this track that she hasn’t had much chance to develop with the UOGB.   

Track twelve, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” is back into a minor key, and then a rousing “Limehouse Blues” sets us up for the closing selections.  Track fourteen, “Thunderball,” showcases Peter Brooke Turner in his mock-macho “Tony Penultimate” mode;  I must confess that most of what his songs in this mode I’m done with after I’ve heard them once, but “Thunderball” wears quite well.  The joke is more subtle, since his singing is impressive enough that we might believe that he really would be the macho jerk he ridicules.  Track fourteen, “Leaning on a Lamppost,” is another repeat from The Secret of Life, and thank heavens for it.  The studio version of that song had featured Peter’s baritone in the part of the “certain little lady,” a cheap joke added to a number that was already full of humor.  This live version splits the lady’s part between Hester and Kitty, and it’s terrific. 

The album closes with the “Fly Me Off the Handel” melange; this is another one that makes me start laying a plot to trick my music theory professor friends into giving the Ukes a chance.   George starts playing a piece by Georg Friedrich Handel, then the other members of the band join in one by one, each singing a different song to the same progression.  Peter belts out a first-rate version of “Fly Me to the Moon”; Dave sings “Love Story”; Kitty, “Autumn Leaves”; Will sings Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”; Richie, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”; Jonty Bankes, “Hotel California”; Hester, “I Will Survive.”  The relationships between one song and another are quite complex; I’ve often thought a music theory class could profit greatly from analyzing the piece and figuring out just why it works.  All I know, musical ignoramus that I am, is that it does work.  In fact, it is spellbinding.      

*Latin for “at the Acilius house”- well, my name is Acilius, isn’t it?  Of course there’s going to be Latin.

The UOGB (or a piece of it) plays “I’m Gonna Be”

I’ve been looking for this clip for quite a while now.  The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (well, four members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and someone else) plays The Proclaimers‘ “I’m Gonna Be” on the BBC.

UPDATE: The “someone else” is Leisa Rea of “Adams & Rea.”

UOGB’s latest

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Teamwork

Last month, I mentioned that  the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was releasing two new albums.  Our copies arrived last week, and Mrs Acilius and I can give them enthusiastically positive reviews. 

fidicula-inter-angelosThe Christmas album, referred to on their website as “Christmas with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain” but labeled as Fiducula inter Angelos (“Miniature Lyres among the Angels,”)  does not after all include the performances they issued last year as a virtual album called “Never Mind the Reindeer.”  Those performances are still available on iTunes.   I do miss the rendition of “The Holly and the Ivy” from last year, but new tracks like the “Wenceslas Canticle” and a vocalese version of  “Winter Wonderland” more than make up for its absence.  Their “Jingle Bells Canticle” gets us (Mr & Mrs Acilius and the dogs) dancing every time we hear it.  Here’s ukulelehunt‘s review of the album. 

live-in-londonIn a comment on last month’s post, ukulelehunt’s proprietor Al Wood, a.k.a. Woodshed, gave it as his opinion that Live in London #1 is the UOGB’s best album yet.   I agree, though Mrs Acilius still leans toward Precious Little.  She plans to walk down the aisle to that album’s recording of “Finlandia” when we make the “Mrs” part official in May, so it has a sentimental importance to her.  Though when we listened to Live in London #1 and heard Hester Goodman’s rendering of “Teenage Dirtbag” as a ballad of adolescent lesbian angst, Mrs Acilius was so enthusiastic I wondered if she was about to suggest using that instead.  She assured me that her enthusiasm was strictly political, stemming from a conviction that sexual minorities need representation in music.  That she has a crush on Hester is purely by the way.  Here is an unflattering picture of Hester sitting next to George Hinchliffe that I could look at if I were in a jealous mood, which of course I never am.    

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Some free music from a member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

If you’ve followed my advice and looked up the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, you’ll have noticed Hester Goodman, the attractive brunette with the haunting voice.  Here’s her myspace page, complete with two free songs I defy you to get out of your head. 

http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendID=300075013