As we drove from Greensboro to Raleigh for ‘A Special Evening with Kishi Bashi and Jake Shimabukuro’, the rain poured down with a force that could only be described as biblical. Unrelenting and nearly violent in nature, the forces of a thunderstorm threatened to derail the night that we had all been waiting for. Afterall, electric instruments and an outdoor concert in the rain are a match which could be considered to be on par with gas station sushi.
Yet, as we crossed the threshold of Raleigh, North Carolina, the clouds began to fade away. Though the ground was wet at the North Carolina Museum of Art from the torrential rains of a particularly muggy summer, the stars had come out to see an unforgettable night of music. They were not to be disappointed.
As Jake Shimabukuro took the stage with a single bass player and a drummer, they were dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt. It was a relaxed persona which was to let up once the tunes erupted. As he began the first song of the night without an introduction, it became obvious why he was coined as “the best living ukulele player in the world.”
He opened the set with what first sounded like a traditional Hawaiian melody, but eventually, those chords married beautifully with jazz, funk and eurocentric classical music. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, a musical journey through a world which somehow felt both untapped and familiar.
Possibly the most moving piece of the night was Shimabukuro’s rendition of ‘Kawika’, a piece which he claimed to have wanted to learn since childhood because of its “cool intro,” an intro which did not disappoint. It began like many of the other pieces, as a traditional Hawaiian melody. Yet as it transformed, it became a complex journey through the two octaves of the ukulele, complete with fast-paced strumming and face-melting ukulele solos – a phrase I was previously unsure was possible.
Jake Shimabukuro’s set ended with a nearly ten-minute rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and shortly after, a “sing-a-long cover” of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Soon after, it was time for Kishi Bashi to take the stage.
The entire ensemble of Kishi Bashi was dressed to the nines, including bow-ties and full suits. They entered stage left with a kind of energy that felt fresh and eager. It was clear that they had come to perform. This combined with LED lights on an electric banjo, and an impressive pedal-board promised a good time.
As the opening notes of Kishi Bashi’s set raised to the heavens, the masterful violin skills of Kaoru Ishibashi mixed with the power of synthesizers and electronic music created something that felt both classic and modern all at the same time. He began the set with some songs from his most recent album, which immediately had the crowd dancing. From there, Kishi Bashi moved around the stage providing one earth-shaking melody after another.
After several songs which were primarily electronic, the mood switched as Ishibashi began talking about a film project which he had been working on, which focused on Japanese internment camps. He then played a song which he had written for the film on a guitar with little accompaniment, which was soft and sorrowful. It was a different speed than he had been bringing for the rest of the night, but it was one that was well appreciated by the audience.
The mood was nearly immediately brought back up when Kishi Bashi began to play their hit ‘The Ballad of Mr. Steak’, complete with a dancing steak coming up on stage. Before the beginning of the song, he told the crowd, “if you have found someone who also loves to dance, now is your time.” It was then that many members of the crowd began to get up and join in, finally emoting the energy which had been present on the stage for the entire night.
After a long standing ovation from the crowd, Kishi Bashi returned to the stage to play once again. Yet, instead of plugging his violin back into an amplifier to provide a traditional encore, the entire band made their way into the audience and played the next two songs completely unplugged.
The unplugged set began with, ‘This Must Be the Place’, one of the bands’ most popular songs. It was surprisingly resonant, considering the acoustics of an outdoor concert at the Museum of Art were not built for a capella. Yet, as he brought his bow along the strings, the sound somehow became more beautiful than anything else we had heard all night. It felt like pure magic.
Kishi Bashi finished this small set with my personal favorite song, ‘Manchester’. It was during this song that the crowd began to sing along, echoing out the particularly moving verse of “I haven’t felt this alive in a long time.” It was a sentiment that seemed to really encapsulate an evening with Kishi Bashi.
As we made the long trek back to the car, there was a connection to that place and to that music which did not seem to end with the concert. The title of “A Special Evening” had done the night justice, and it is a concert which I, nor the rest of the concertgoers, will likely soon forget.