Blues on blues festival: Let the rhapsody begin
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
It's the simple things that make playing a KIPO Blues Night special for guitarist/vocalist Bob Jones and his band Hard Drive when compared with, say, your average garden-variety restaurant or bar gig.
Of course, there are other important caveats to possessing bragging rights to your very own evening of what has arguably become Honolulu's primo gig for blues musicians.
"You pretty much don't have anybody in the audience shouting, 'Freebird!' or anything like that at Blues Night," Jones said, serious as a myocardial infarction.
Tomorrow's KIPO-FM 89.3 Blues Marathon is set to include performances from nearly all of the local blues musicians who have made the monthly Blues Night showcases must-sees for Honolulu blues fans. The 13-hour event celebrates the second birthday of the jazz- and blues-heavy public radio station's last-Saturday-of-the-month blues concert series.
Blues Night "has matured ... and grown as large as the venues will let it grow," KIPO program coordinator and Blues Night founder Jeff Illardi said proudly. "We've never had a real serious drop in numbers. Pretty much every single Blues Night has filled its venue."
Blues Night, in fact, tallied its largest audience ever last month when 300 gathered at first-time venue Kapono's for a performance by Bluzilla that Illardi modestly explained was mostly a case of "bigger walls ... bigger audience."
Other Blues Night stops have included the decidedly smaller Sand Island R&B, Anna Bannana's, O'Tooles Pub, Don Ho's Island Grill and now-defunct Havana Cabana. Blues Night generally attracts an average of 150 blues fans a month.
Illardi's goal when launching Blues Night in July 2000 was multi-fold. A longtime blues fan, Illardi envisioned an event that with the proper promotion would provide an ideal showcase for local blues bands and gain KIPO some additional revenue outside of pledge drives. Illardi also was seeking an identity for KIPO's own jazz and blues programming apart from sister station KHPR's more classically and symphonically inclined broadcasts.
"And I think that's very clear now to our listeners," said Illardi, giving partial props to Blues Night. "I can't say that we've gotten a whole lot more listeners per se (because of Blues Night), but listeners now really understand that there is a (programming difference between) KHPR and KIPO."
Chris Planas, guitarist/vocalist for five-time Blues Night headliner Third Degree, credited the station's stepped-up blues programming for nurturing a passionate and knowledgeable local audience.
"When people come out to Blues Night, I wouldn't say they have a high expectation, but they have an informed awareness as to what can happen," Planas said. "And that's good for the people who want to play blues. It's something that we look forward to when we do the Blues Nights or Blues Marathons. There's an audience that really comes to hear the music."
Planas compared playing Blues Night to a concert performance where the audience is more willing to trust the band's creative muse, "as opposed to 'We need to play dance tunes' or 'We need to play cover tunes like "Mustang Sally." ' We don't need to do that at a Blues Night. We can play stuff that is just as interesting and fun, but doesn't have to be lowest-common-denominator-type stuff."
Four-time Blues Night musician Jones described the event's more informed audience as tough, in a good way.
"You're thankful to have an educated audience," Jones said. "But at the same time, there's a little bit more pressure because you can't be B.S.-ing around. You can't slop it up because these people will know!" Jones let loose a deep chortle.
"But that's a good thing," Jones finished. "That pressure of a knowledgeable audience always brings out the best in players, I think."
Having played enough restaurant and bar gigs where the band and its music seemed more management afterthought than main course, Bluzilla harpist Corey Funai simply praised Illardi and KIPO's well-organized Blues Night machine.
"Jeff really keeps it professional and organized so people get what they come for," said Funai, a five-time Blues Night veteran who tries to keep Bluzilla's performance schedule clear on the last Saturday night of every month. You know ... just in case.
"I try to project what Jeff's (Blues Night) schedule is for the next three or four months," said Funai, laughing. "If he asks us, we're elated."