13.11.2019 Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain @ Savoy-teatteri, Helsinki (Musicalypse Archive)


The UKULELE ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN. Not only are they a thing that exists, which in itself is awesome, but they actually come tour in Finland, of all places! Their name popped up on our radar during their last show here back in 2017 (I believe), but we weren’t able to make it that time due to unforeseen circumstances. Having no idea if and when they’d ever be back, you can imagine our excitement when it was a mere 2 years later! We headed to Savoy-teatteri at the very reasonable hour of 19:00 to check out what this strange and wonderful event would be like! Check out the gallery here.

Our first time at Savoy-teatteri was during An Evening with Devin Townsend earlier this year, so we already knew that it was a seated show and should have good acoustics. Beyond that, we really didn’t know what to expect from the UKULELE ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN. In fact, my exposure to this band was limited to their cover of “Bang Bang” on Spotify (their only song on Spotify at the time this was written) and this music video (that is on my list of greatest things ever):

That was the extent of what I knew of this group. They took the stage and immediately it became clear that it was a “band” in the sense that it has regular members, so most of the people present on this night were recognizable from the video above.

As they took their seats, we were pleased to see that many of the people we recognized from YouTube, like George Hinchliffe, Dave Suich, Richie Williams, Peter Brooke Turner, and Jonty Bankes were present, though it wasn’t everyone we had seen online, as Leisa Rae was the only one of the women present. They immediately said that it’s a tradition to turn on the Christmas lights this time of year in the UK and they wanted to share their tradition with the crowd, and did a dramatic countdown while pointing at the lighting tech before turning on a comedically small strand of Christmas lights wrapped around a very short mic stand. This incredibly lame yet funny joke preceded a truly impressive rendition of the otherwise unimpressive Christmas song, “Sleighride,” and gave us a proper introduction of what was to come: a 2-hour set (with a 15 minute intermission) of dad jokes, groaners, and puns accompanied by both incredible and nonsensical singing, sound effects, and whistling, and obviously, some of the best ukulele music you’ve ever heard.

Each member of the band seemed to have a specialty of their own – not only was each ukulele unique and different, some were simple four-stringed acoustic ukuleles, some looked more electronic in style, while Bankes even had a bass ukulele – not a thing that I knew existed. There was even a teeny tiny ukulele at one point. The first half of the show involved each of the members having a moment in the spotlight, each telling one joke or story (or both), such as listing all three Finnish things they can say that start with “K”: “kiitos,” “kippis,” and “kuplamuovi,” [“thank you,” “cheers,” and “bubble wrap”] and taking the lead vocals for the song to follow. It wasn’t, however, a strictly Christmas concert, as the only Christmas songs we heard were “Sleighride,” “Oh Christmas Tree,” and “Winter Wonderland.”

On arriving, we had noticed that many people in the audience had ukuleles with them, which was apparently a crowd-interaction part of the show. We joked that it would be quite funny to see the same thing at a rock show – the band posting their tabs online and inviting the guests to bring their own guitars to play along. That’s exactly what happened here: the band posted some simple ukulele tabs online and told their fans to bring their own ukuleles to play along. Not everyone appeared to have learned the songs, but it was a fun addition to the night and we know for next time to bring our ukuleles with us!

One of the band then claimed that the Christmas song had been meant to be the last song before the intermission, but they got the song order mixed up, and that they played the final song of the first half once to Queen Elizabeth II at her birthday party. It was quite hard to tell if they were poking fun or being honest, as is often the case with comedy shows. They plugged their CDs that they had for sale as well, including a “By Request” album, which they requested that the audience buy (badum-tsh).

The intermission was a 15-minute break before the band returned and thanked everyone for actually coming back. The groaners continued, from claims that buying their albums meant milk for their children, and that “Dreams” by THE CRANBERRIES was safe for vegans. They claimed that Robert Johnson was a famous blues fellow who sold his ukulele at the crossroads in exchange for a guitar, and that any country with another “K” word like “kalsarikännit” is okay in their books.

The lights came up a second time to let the crowd play along with “Winter Wonderland,” saxophones were replaced by impressive whistling, and the newest member of the orchestra was revealed to be the aforementioned teeny-weenie little ukulele. Towards the end, one of the fellows wanted to do a classical solo of a Handel song but was continuously shut down by the the rest of the band, in favor of songs like “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson and “Song 2” by BLUR. Eventually the band suggested a few more upbeat alternatives to a classical song, such as Frank Sinatra or Gloria Gaynor or HANOI ROCKS. He ignored them, announced his song, and began to play a piece by Handel. Slowly and surely, other members of the band began to sing songs like “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Wild World,” “Killing Me Softly,” “I Will Survive,” and “Hotel California” over top of the classical song. This led to him stopping to eat a banana for a while before continuing on. Presumably, this song was called “Fly Me Off the Handel.”

Finally, Dave Suich let down his long hair and fully rocked out as they all finished up the main set with AC/DC‘s “Highway to Hell” before heading off stage. Helsinki wasn’t going to let them go so easily though, so they came back to a great deal of cheering, joking that “you can’t get out that way” as an explanation for why they had come back. They then finished up with “Heroes” by David Bowie and a local track, which I believe was “Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius, before taking their final bows. We were delighted to see that most (if not all) of the band came down pretty much immediately afterwards to sign albums, as well as the audience’s ukuleles, which was a fun treat. Again, we found ourselves lamenting that we didn’t know beforehand that we should’ve brought our ukuleles with us! Hopefully there will be a next time soon to remedy this.

So was this a comedy show or a music show? The answer appears to be both! The entire idea of a ukulele orchestra is rather entertaining in and of itself, but the fact that their shows not only have the pinnacle of what you can accomplish with ukuleles technically, they also include funny and comedic vocals and an absolute ton of jokes. This was probably one of the most entertaining shows of the year for me personally and it’s hard to imagine anyone leaving that show without a grin on their face.

Setlist (approximate)

1. Sleighride
2. Psycho Killer (Talking Heads cover)
3. Anarchy in the UK (Sex Pistols cover)
4. Sweet Dreams (Eurythmics cover)
6. Thunderball (Tom Jones cover)
7. Silver Machine (Hawkwind cover)
8. Oh Christmas Tree
9. It Had Better Be Tonight (Meglio Stasera) (Henry Mancini cover)
10. Leaning on a Lamppost (Herman’s Hermits cover)
11. The Model (Kraftwerk cover)
12. Dreams (The Cranberries cover)
13. Slave to the Rhythm (Grace Jones)
14. Winter Wonderland
15. They’re Red Hot (Robert Johnson cover)
16. On the Road Again (Willie Nelson cover)
17. Song 2 (Blur cover)
18. Fly Me Off the Handel (medley)
19. Highway to Hell (AC/DC cover)
20. Heroes (David Bowie cover) (encore)
21. Finlandia (Jean Sibelius cover) (encore)

Written by Bear Wiseman
Musicalypse, 2019
OV: 1953

Photos by Miia Collander