The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain plays Tallinn.
An amateur ukulele player who takes his wife to see the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is likely no more intelligent than a man who takes his wife to see a porno film. In very short order the wife will forget that those performing are professionals, and her expectations will be irrevocably altered.
“What a wonderful song,” my wife Liina told me after the Orchestra had just finished David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” “You should play that for me at home.”
But it was not just any “Life on Mars.” It was, in bass player Jonty Bankes’ words, “a song about plagiarism,” more a romp through musical history revealing some of Mr. Bowie’s possible influences. (Bowie has called the Orchestra “wonderfully clever.”)
And it only got better.
The Orchestra's version of "Hot Lips" (by the Swedish group, Pacific) is proof that Northern Europeans can, in fact, groove, albeit with a little help from their British friends.
“Hot Lips” is greatly helped by the performance of Peter Brooke Turner, a big man with a big voice who is also, rather obviously, a veteran of TV comedy. (Turner, incidentally, looks a lot like Garrison Keillor when viewed from the eleventh row).
Also worthy of note was Kitty Lux who kept her game face on for most of the duration of the concert. The Orchestra’s co-founder Lux, with or without her Aunt Jemima head scarf, bears a scary resemblance the Estonian actress Marika Vaarik. What made Lux’s straight-man role in the concert most enjoyable was its juxtaposition against her past membership in punk bands like "Sheeny and the Goys" and "The Severed Heads & the Neck Fuckers." Lux is a highly accomplished songwriter.
All the band members have similarly interesting backgrounds and accomplished CVs well outside the Orchestra. Yet they seem to keep their feet firmly on the ground, as perhaps only ukulele stardom can allow. Only minutes after the concert, David Suich had a glass of red wine in his hand while he chatted with fans in the coat check line.
In perhaps their only dramatic fault, the Orchestra stepped into the leg trap set for international musicians in Tallinn: the inevitable comparison of our small venue to the more regal but less exotic destinations like New York and Australia. However, in a last minute recovery (their last encore) the Orchestra bowed to the uniqueness of the Tallinn venue with a performance of Nokia’s default ringtone, which, if the management of Tallinn’s Nokia Concert Hall is smart, they will acquire for their own use to replace the indescribably annoying ringtone currently used to call the public into the hall for the performance.
After the concert, try as I might, there was little hope of me telling Liina I could not play “Life on Mars” for her at home. Despite the Orchestra’s repeated self-effacing references to campfire singalongs, they are not mere uke players. As a writer for The Green Man Review once noted, they “mix musical brilliance (both instrumental and vocal), and a profound knowledge of music, with the greatest sense of humor I have seen on a musical stage.”
I may report, however, that the concert did advance my agenda. It served to convince my wife that I needed to buy yet another ukulele. After all, how is one to perform the parts of seven if he owns only one uke?
Vello Vikerkaar is a columnist for Postimees.