Business booms for Blues Night
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer
But the idea for the nonprofit public radio station's monthly showcase for the best local blues musicians didn't come from increased listener demand for a live night of blues, or even an increased blues presence on KIPO's FM airwaves. And it certainly didn't come from a rise in the number of blues clubs in town there are none or growing list of musicians performing it you could probably still count the number of strictly blues acts getting local gigs on two hands.
In fact, the story of Blues Night actually starts in May 2000 with one program director's desperate late-night drive through a Honolulu industrial area in search of a decent blues band for a yuppie-fied Hawai'i Public Radio beer-tasting gig.
"I remember rolling down my window and, sure enough, hearing blues coming out of Sand Island R&B," recalled KIPO program coordinator Jeff Ilardi, of his midnight quest. Ilardi eventually walked in to find a somewhat empty room of regulars listening to local R&B band Ghost.
Passionately wailing away on the sax was Jerry Martini, a resident musician who, among other things, was a founding member of Sly and The Family Stone.
"When they went on break, Jerry who's a very sociable person started walking around the room talking to everybody in the club," Ilardi said.
The two struck up a conversation that ended with Ilardi telling Martini of his search for a band that could replace the jazz- and pop-heavy sets of acts from beer-tastings past, with a strict menu of blues. Martini promptly had the band run through a smoking five-song set that included some sweet Chicago-style blues and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Ilardi was sold, offered Ghost the gig, and began running promos and moving ahead with other plans for the beer tasting.
"Then Jerry calls and tells me that he's gonna be able to make it, but not the band," remembered Ilardi. "Instead it was going to be this band called The Eric Petersen Band. I remember he said, 'Trust me, they're really good.' "
Ilardi had never heard of the group, but with the beer-tasting now two weeks away, it was too late to even think of gassing his car up and cruising the harbor area for another blues band.
"I just told him again that I wanted the blues," Ilardi said. "No R&B. The band had to play strictly blues."
On the evening of KIPO sister station KHPR's annual tasting, beer, food and conversation flowed as usual. Even the band showed up on time.
"Then Eric Petersen walks up on stage with a big 'ol black cowboy hat and starts off on the Hammond B-3 organ," Ilardi said.
Martini and the band joined in on some tasty swamp blues jams, "and it was marvelous ... just what we were looking for. The audience ate it up. People were dancing, and it was the most active audience we had ever had at a beer tasting."
More than pleased with the results, Ilardi and HPR general manager and president Michael Titterton didn't want to wait until the next annual beer tasting to bring back the band for a station fund-raiser. Martini, juiced by the crowd's size and reception, wanted more as well and offered up an idea: a KIPO-sponsored blues night at Sand Island R&B that would would not only garner some attention and a larger audience than usual for the band, but raise a few bucks for the nonprofit radio station in the process.
After some discussion, Ilardi and Titterton decided to lend the station's name to three monthly Blues Nights at Sand Island R&B with The Eric Petersen Band and Jerry Martini. The club would pay the band and KIPO would cover promotion and collect a $7 cover at the door, which the station would get to keep. Scheduled for the last Saturday in July, llardi wondered if anyone would show up. He needn't have worried.
"By the time I arrived at 8:30 to set up the door, there were already 30 people sitting in the club waiting for the show," Ilardi recalled. More than 120 blues fans would eventually show up for KIPO's first Blues Night, packing the small club wall to wall. "A lot of the folks that were already there actually came up and paid once we set up the door. Suddenly, we had a new fund-raiser on our hands." After the next two Blues Nights pulled in similar-sized crowds, Ilardi decided to give the event some monthly permanence.
In its first year, Blues Night has attracted a dedicated and ever-growing base of blues travelers who turn up no matter the location or the band. Held on the last Saturday of each month, Blues Night has drawn packed houses to such seemingly disparate venues as Anna Bannanas, The Blue Room, O'Toole's Pub and the now-departed Havana Cabana.
In January, Kona Brewing Co. signed on as the event's principal sponsor, leaving KIPO free from almost all monthly financial obligations related to Blues Night. Now an official part of KIPO's annual fund-raising budget, Blues Night has in one year pulled in about 20 percent of what KIPO typically collects during its annual fund drive.
Far from winding down in popularity, May's Blues Night with local blues bruisers Third Degree at Anna Bannanas attracted 200 attendees, the event's largest audience to date.
Back on stage for tomorrow evening's "strictly blues" celebratory birthday marathon at Anna Bannanas will be Blues Night alumni Third Degree, Bob Jones and Hard Drive, Bluzilla, Keahi Conjugacion and, no surprise, The Eric Petersen Band though without idea man Martini, who now lives in Florida. Blues Night gets back to its monthly business in September with a Bluzilla performance, once again, at Anna's.
"The goal for Blues Night is to keep featuring local blues bands, and hopefully find more new ones out there," Ilardi said. "We want to reward the people who are out there playing the blues on a regular basis and trying to make it work."