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Review: Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain at the Sage Gateshead

Ukelele players whose repertoire includes Pharrell Williams and David Bowie are among Britain's finest exports believes Rob Barnes

The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain
The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain

Touring and recording for 29 years, the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain has developed into something of a national institution.

Also firmly established around the world, it must have inspired thousands to learn the instrument.

The orchestra has played the Proms, Glastonbury and Hyde Park, has just returned from touring China and continues to be in demand around the world.

Its eight players brought their unique brand of brilliant musicianship and deadpan humour to Gateshead, sitting in a line across the stage in an affectionate parody of a conventional orchestra.

The electric bass ukelele was the only concession to modernity, the rest being acoustic and amplified by microphones.

The sound is always rich and balanced, the vocals idiosyncratic, the playing and visual humour mesmerising.

Just about every genre is woven into their two-and-a-half-hour set – from the Dambusters’ March to Adele and Prince, ending with Je T’aime, the breathy Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin hit from 1969.

Some of the music is treated reverently, whereas some is a considerable variation on the original.

For example, David Bowie’s Life on Mars morphs seamlessly into My Way, Born Free, and Substitute by The Who. All share the same chord structure.

The players’ hilarious take on Pharrell Williams’ Get Lucky incorporates farmyard noises so naturally that they could almost have been part of the original.

They sing well, each member with a personal and distinctive style, but layered harmonies abound, incorporating whistling and other vocal effects, as in the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

My sister-in-law said earlier this year to beg, steal or borrow a ticket to see this lot at all costs. She was right.

If you like your entertainment in that broad genre which encompasses The New Rope String Band and the Spooky Men’s Chorale, you should bookmark this bunch of consummate musicians and very original entertainers who make up one of our finest exports.

Rob Barnes


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