This story features “Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain” presented by Strathmore.
When Will Grove-White heard about a band of misfits that played Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and Stravinsky on ukuleles, he had to see the show. “They were just brilliant, I had to keep going back,” he said.
After three years as an enthusiastic fan, the then 16-year-old ukulele-playing schoolboy was invited to join The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. That was in 1991, and Grove-White has never looked back.
The Ukulele Orchestra was formed in 1985 as performance art, a punk art takeoff on big bands, Grove-White said. Founding members thought they would do a few shows, and that would be it. But, fans were drawn to their eclectic mix of songs, humor and artistry. More than 30 years later, the orchestra performs about 100 shows a year for fans around the world.
On Saturday, April 21, the orchestra will bring its Heresy II Heritage Tour to the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. The show will feature songs from their recent album, “By Request: Songs from the Set List.” The album of fan favorites includes the theme from the 1960s TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies” and AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
The show and the album feature the eight-piece orchestra singing and strumming new popular songs, obscure oldies and twisted covers and mashups. The performance, as described by the orchestra’s website, showcases “the inimitable jollity, joy and exuberance of the orchestra’s celebrated style, from hard rock classics to moody ballads via a confluence of Woodstock and New Orleans Mardi Gras.” The New York Times described the orchestra’s 2010 Carnegie Hall debut as “a mix of physical comedy, pun-filled banter between songs and finely nuanced playing.”
The advantage of being a ukulele orchestra is that the group can play what it likes; there is no canon of ukulele songs audiences expect, Grove-White said. “As long as it makes us tap our toes and we’re laughing still,” he said.
Grove-White’s current personal favorites are their rendition of “The Old Home Place,” with a little experimental dance in the middle, and a Prokofiev piece. Audiences enjoy the theme from the movie, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” he said.
“We like to cover all the bases,” Grove-White said. “If you don’t like one song, you’ll like another.”
Count Queen Elizabeth II among the orchestra’s fans. Prince Charles invited them to perform at a private party at Windsor Castle for the queen’s 90th birthday.
Grove-White calls the ukulele a versatile instrument that is easy to learn. It has only four strings, takes just four fingers to play and can make all the notes and sounds. It was the first instrument of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
And the ukulele is portable. “You can do a world tour with only hand luggage,” Grove-White said.
The orchestra usually tours the United States once or twice a year. Their tour of East Coast and Midwest cities began in early April. After Strathmore, they have one show in Connecticut, then head back home to Great Britain. And in July, they will tour China, where they have many fans.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets range from $20 to $60. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.