Uke Power
Prodigy Jake Shimabukuro Rocks the Clean Life

By Lee Valentine Smith

Talented instrumentalist Jake Shimabukuro has taken the once-limiting platform of the ukulele to incredible new levels. As he grew up in Honolulu, the prodigy learned the basics of the diminutive instrument from his mother and developed his craft by immersing himself in the varied techniques of such classic rock guitarists as Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck and even Warren Haynes.

Originally signed to Sony in Japan, it took a fluke of the internet to bring him to world-wide attention. His version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" became a viral You Tube sensation and established the soft-spoken musician as a major player. Today, backed by the solid rhythm section of Nolan Verner (bass) and Evan Hutchings (drums) and guitarist Dave Preston, his latest album The Greatest Day, is the basis of his current tour.

INsite spoke with the clean-living Shimabukuro by phone in route to a show at Southern Oregon University.

You're coming back to the Winery almost exactly a year since your previous visit.

I'm very excited to come back there, too. It's in such a cool part of town and the audience that came last time was so welcoming. We got such a positive response, a great turnout and it made us feel really good.

I know so many acts that can't even fill up that room for one night and now you've got two big nights lined up there.

(Laughs) I just hope everyone comes out. I actually hope a lot of families will come because it's a very family-oriented show. I'm not sure what the policy is there about children, but I hope families can come because the ukulele speaks to all ages.

You've released another album since the last time you were in town. The Greatest Day was released back in August. Looking back, what do you think of it now?

I'm very proud of it. I think one of my proudest moments was after we'd finished mixing it, I brought it home and played it for my mom and day. The first song is "Time Of The Season" and as soon as it came on, they both perked up and went, 'Is this The Zombies song?' A lot of the songs really resonated with them and they told me it's their favorite record of mine.

The Zombies played the Winery last year. You'll be doing that song on the same stage the actual band performed it.

Oh really? That's great! I'll make sure to mention that at the show. We've been opening with that one, actually. I just love playing it live, but I love live performance. It's the best way to connect with people, sharing an experience together.

The new album and the live show is a good mix of covers and originals. How do you select the covers?

I listen to all kinds of music and there's so many songs I'd love to cover. We just finished another record, actually. It'll be out in the fall. On it, we did a couple of pretty interesting covers. "Wish You Were Here," the old Pink Floyd tune and we also did a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide."

Two very different songs. Your personal record collection must be incredible.

I just love so many different types of music. I do love all the classic rock, but I'll cover any song that really speaks to me, even classical or traditional Hawaiian music.

You're all over the map stylistically and probably because of that, the jam band scene has really embraced you.

That's right and I love it. I've always been a fan of stuff like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Phish, The Grateful Dead. I feel the energy of it. There's a lot of improvisation, a lot of just pure spontaneity. There's a bit of looseness that allows for a playful vibe. It's such amazing music of the moment.

You were invited to the Warren Haynes Jam a while back, that must have been a blast.

Oh man, he's another one of my favorites. What an incredible guitar player. His tone and feel and voice, he's just really something. A wonderful bandleader and just an incredible human being. It was an honor to be invited and an incredible experience.

You really have to be at a certain level of musicianship to be invited to play with him.

He's been truly supportive and kind of helping me out a lot. He's so giving of his time and he genuinely loves to play and really loves to jam. He'll jam until 5 in the morning.

And that's just one song!

(Laughs) Exactly. But guys like him, they take you on a whole journey with a song. We played together on the Allman Brothers' song "Melissa" and it was just an incredible experience.

From your range of interests and expertise, you are fast becoming the new Jeff Beck.

Oh man, that's so nice. Funny you mentioned him, I love his music and I was on a plane the other night and I was listening to his version of "A Day In The Life," non-stop. I just had it on repeat the whole flight and every time I played it, I'd pick up on something new.

Have you worked with him yet?

No, I've never even met him, but I'd sure love to someday.

I hear you've been working on an album of duets. You should invite him to be on it.

Oh yes! That's actually a good idea. We're making progress on it. So far, I've got a couple of tracks with Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Ray Benson from Asleep At The Wheel. I think next we'll have Jack Johnson and then Bette Midler and I'm hoping to get Warren on there as well when his schedule isn't so busy.

I've noticed a lot of your heroes are guitarists. Have you ever thought of adding guitar to your arsenal of sounds?

No, I've always just stayed with the uke. It's been a part of my life since I was four, so I'm going to see where it takes me from there.

I really admire your clean-living lifestyle. It's so easy to fall into bad habits on the road.

It is. On the road it is easy to eat a lot of fried foods and after-show type food like pizza and scarfing down beers and all that. But I've never been a drinker and I've always tired to eat healthy. Every once in a while, maybe we'll have some pizza after a show but for the most part, we try to keep a lot of fruits and vegetables around and stay away from fast foods as much as we can.

You may be one of the healthiest people in rock music.

(Laughs) Well that's very important to me. We've all been completely drug-free our entire lives. At every show, I make it a point - especially if there's kids there - to encourage everyone to be drug-free, too. I remember when I was a kid, there was an entertainer who came to our school and it was so cool. Then at the end, he told us about being drug-free. It really made an impact on me. I never forgot it. So now I feel that if I say it at all my shows, if there's even one kid that I can reach, then it's all worth it.

Jake Shimabukuro plays Sunday, February 24 and Monday, February 25 at City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.

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