Jake Shimabukuro is one of the most innovative ukulele players in this era, known not only for developing new techniques for the instrument, but also for fusing various genres such as classical, jazz, country, bluegrass, and rock into his sound. The Hawaiian-born musician’s “Christmas in Hawaii” performance at The Saban Theater in Beverly Hills offered a warm, festive respite from the light drizzle on December 2nd, a chilly night by Southern California standards. Featuring bassist Jackson Waldhoff and singer-guitarist Justin Kawika Young, the evening was a family-friendly affair that showcased the musicians’ impressive technique and versatility while staying true to their Hawaiian roots.
The setlist included songs from a variety of genres, ranging from traditional holiday songs like “What Child is This” and “O Holy Night,” rock favorites “Eleanor Rigby,” and “We Will Rock You,” famous soul classic “A Place in the Sun” originally by Stevie Wonder, several folksy songs by Young, to even a bluegrass-inspired original by Shimabukuro. Shimabukuro’s original compositions also draw inspiration from other instruments and media. “Dragon” was inspired by the 1973 film Enter the Dragon and was what Shimabukuro imagined a collaboration between Van Halen and Bruce Lee would sound like. “Let’s Dance” was a flamenco-style piece heavily influenced by Spanish guitarist Carlos Montoya, whose technique of playing bass notes, trémolo, and percussive sounds all at once inspired Shimabukuro to do the same on the ukulele, giving the illusion of a 3-person ensemble. Despite the size of the instrument, Shimabukuro could mimic explosive, bass drum-like beats by striking the ukulele body.
Justin Kawika Young joined Shimabukuro and Walhoff on stage for several songs in the middle of the set, gracing the hall with his guitar playing and magnificent voice. Young, ex-fiance and bandmate of Colbie Caillat, is also a talented songwriter and director, and he collaborated with Shimabukuro on several songs on the ukuleleist’s latest album, Jake & Friends. The trio performed several of Young’s originals, some of which reflect on Young’s experiences of heartbreak, loss, longing, and homecoming. Folk-pop songs “E Kailua E” and “Never Forget Where I’m From” served as musical love letters to the musicians’ homeland. “You can take the boy from the island, but you can never take the island from the boy,” Young shared when introducing these songs. The Hawaiian influence could also be heard in “Find Yourself,” a simple yet addictively catchy song by Lukas Nelson built on a laidback island groove.
Shimabukuro’s playful personality kept the show lighthearted and fun for all ages. During “Over the Rainbow,” he surprised the audience by starting to belt out the lyrics before laughing and admitting, “Just kidding, I can’t sing. You should have seen some of your faces when I started singing!” When the triple J’s were onstage, they hyped each other up during solos and worked in perfect harmony. Between songs, they did not pass up the opportunity to praise (and tease) each other. Young shared, “Nobody else is playing ukulele the way Jake plays. Playing onstage with him is like playing basketball with Michael Jordan. Though, on the court, Jake is no Michael Jordan.” The trio went on to make fun of their own age, reminiscing about playing CDs in CD players “back in the late 1900s,” and joked about how Waldhoff hadn’t said a single word during the show. Even when Shimabukuro recounted the time he met Queen Elizabeth, he turned it into a funny story by focusing on how he was the only one in the room to start bowing aggressively when the Queen entered. “I’ve never bowed so fast and so hard, I must’ve looked like a chicken,” he laughed. The fun stories and lighthearted teasing amongst the musicians made sure that the moments between songs were just as enjoyable as the songs themselves.
Towards the end of the show, Shimabukuro and Waldhoff performed legendary Queen classics, “We Will Rock You” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” garnering stomps, cheers, and a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience. After Shimabukuro’s powerful solo “Kawika,” which to the ukulele is what “Stairway to Heaven” is to the guitar, he gave encouraging advice to the kids about finding their passion and thanked several friends and special guests in the audience individually, including comedian Ali Wong. To close out the evening, he invited Young back to the stage to perform “Get Together,” a rather subdued track for a finale, but one that spreads peace and positivity. The setlist, venue, and friendliness of the performers helped make the show an accessible and jovial experience for concertgoers of all ages.