Last weekend, my part time job at a DJ company took me to a charity ball in Ilsington. My set was meant to follow two bands, so after a pleasant dinner, I sat down and listened to the music that was on display. When I heard that both bands favoured the ukulele as an instrument, my doubts began to creep in, but the first band actually really surprised me. The band is an orchestra formed in the South Dartmoor Community College, a secondary school in Devon. It is comprised of six members, Joshua Wheaton, Stan Carrodus, Chloe Stacey-Macgregor, Theo Goss, Kate Whapples and Jack Miller, dubbing themselves the Ukes of Hazzard for the evening. The other name thrown around was Stan Carrodus and Friends (chosen by everyone but Stan Carrodus; he hates the publicity).
There is something really charming about hearing your favourite songs remastered, so they work for the ukulele. I have always enjoyed hearing classic songs played around with, so they seem even fresher than the day they were first released. Since listening to the band, I have thrown myself back into some songs I had forgotten about, The Ukulele Orchestra really bringing them back to life. Also, one of the best things about the orchestra was the fact that they never went for the obvious song. One criticism I had for the Ukulele band that followed was that they seemed to cover the obvious songs for a ukulele. It is also a reason I have a grudge against those endless Youtube videos of ukulele covers. Here, the band just decided to have fun and that was what made the moment they were on stage so enjoyable. To this day, I never thought I would hear a Ukulele version of Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus. But it worked, and that is all down to a well-rehearsed band, knowing how best to get the audience in the palm of their hands.
It would have been easy for the band to play to their strengths. As soon as we caught them rehearsing for their performance, as we were setting up our equipment, we were blown away by Josh Wheaton’s vocals. He has one of those voices that is really catching on right now. He has the power and a rustic charm, original enough to really stick in your memory, but at the same time, it is able to work with several types of music. As Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’ opened proceedings, he captured the attention of the entire audience. They were hooked by his voice and talent. Any doubts anyone had about the band was calmly swept away by his casual, yet precise performance. For me, Josh was the anchor of the band and we all had one eye on him, wondering when he was next going to come into play.
However, as I said, the band doesn’t just push Josh into the centre of the stage and let him to do all of the heavy lifting. Every member of the band gets their fair share of vocals, taking it in turns to lead the others into the song. Therefore, their music never gets old. Most bands tend to accidentally make all of their songs roll into one, continuous act, but that never happens with the South Dartmoor Ukulele Orchestra. We get a selection of different vocals. When Josh sits out on a song, Stan Carrodus steps up and treats us to some deeper, pitch perfect singing. And then, that song could be followed up by Chloe Stacey-Macgregor treating us to a melodic, soothing solo. No matter who you are looking at in that band, there is a fantastic voice to go with that face. But best of all, when everyone teams up and we get some terrific harmonies. This band’s best talent is harmonisation, as they proved with ‘Allstar’ (my personal favourite of the evening). It really showed off their precision and connection as a band that was nice to see. Also, early on, when the band suffered slightly from nerves, the group moments cancelled that out and we saw everyone perform at their best. It was a remarkable thing to witness.
The South Dartmoor Community College simply created a moment. They came alive when their music was playing and we could see how much they enjoyed playing those ukuleles onstage. They were having the time of their lives, and when they were playing, we, as an audience, were sharing that moment with them. And that was a fantastic experience to be involved with, one I would love to take part in again.