It’s highly unlikely that one could experience anything like a Willie K show anywhere else in the world. Along with a smorgasbord of great music, you get comedy and story time about anything from cultural awareness and local history to the socio-economic reality of what it’s like growing up struggling in Hawaii.
It’s kind of like Willie K raw, uncensored, real, unpretentious and very funny as he riffs on an array of subjects including why it sucked that Spam was introduced here, and how playing the Israeli national anthem in Egypt was probably not a great idea.
And of course there’s music played by the virtuoso, ranging from Willie K hits and some astonishing covers, to jazz scatting and get-down, grinding, funky blues.
Willie K and the Warehouse Blues Band perform on Thursday nights through November at the King Kamehameha Golf Club’s Waikapu Ballroom. There is a dance floor. Dinner seating is at 6:30 p.m., and the show starts at 8 p.m. Dinner and show costs $60, and show only is $25. Call 243-1025 for reservations.
The show could be subtitled Willie K’s magical musical treasure chest, where anything could pop out.
In the space of two hours we heard a jaw-dropping Judy Garland (not IZ) version of “Over the Rainbow”; an emotionally wrenching cover of the Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care,” sung as a homage to Nina Simone; HAPA’s beautiful “Ku’u Lei Awapuhi”; some Tahitian and a sampling of Mexican mariachi; Waylon Jennings’ country classic “Good Hearted Woman” mixed with “Hawaiian Cowboy” yodeling; and Tony Lindsay’s local standard “Blue Darling;” all topped off with the Texas-style blues of ZZ Top’s signature hit “La Grange.”
Oh, and no opera this time – “This is not the opera gig,” Willie announces.
Backing Willie must feel a little like working with Bob Dylan, as you’re probably never quite sure what musical direction he’s heading next.
Ably assisting this Hawaiian master are longtime bassist Jerry Byers and drummer Kris Thomas, joined by keyboardist Alika Nako’oka, and for the Waikapu gig, the addition of guitarist Tom Conway.
An exceptional guitarist, Conway has toured on the Mainland in recent years with Willie Nelson, even appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” with the country icon. And, as he’s got the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt down, this adds another musical tangent for Willie to explore.
“It’s an inspiration when you see our local talent playing with the big wigs, going on tour with Willie Nelson,” says Willie of Conway. “He’s one of our musical ohana that keeps this island thriving as far as entertainment. It was an opportunity to strengthen the Warehouse Blues Band and add a little more class to it. He’s really happy because he never gets a chance to really explode on Maui with an electric guitar.”
So what’s it like having another lead guitarist on board?
“That monkey has flown away from my back,” he says laughing. “It feels so good to have someone I can count on to carry the show when I’m talking, or singing or dancing.”
Opening with the bluesy shuffle of “Driving Miss Daisy Wild,” he mostly spends the first half “sharing all kinds of music,” which includes Willie K favorites like “Molokai Woman” and “You Ku’uipo” (with some hula from his daughter) sprinkled through an eclectic repertoire. Switching from acoustic to electric guitar, the show then swings into the blues.
Playing blues these days is where Willie comes most alive.
“I love playing the blues and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” he says. “Blues is so special to me because it’s the only type of music where both the vocals and guitar can become emotional at one time.
“I remember singing the blues when I was like 6 or 7 years old, singing old standards that my father used to sing. I remember the first time I heard ‘The Thrill is Gone’ as a kid, and I thought, ‘This is cool stuff.’ I was lost after that. I knew nothing about Hawaiian music until much later in life. The first thing for me was blues, soul and R&B, Sam and Dave, the Four Tops and Aretha Franklin. When Stevie Ray Vaughan came into the picture, that was it.”
A few years back, Willie expressed his love for blues with an album of all-original material, “Warehouse Blues,” that paid tribute to some of the greats he admires from John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, to Albert Collins and Vaughan. The recording, which won a Na Hoku Hanohano award for Rock Album of the Year (there’s no blues category), covered many shades of blues from the scorching blues-rocker “Howling at the Moon,” which is a highlight in Waikapu, to “Heart Aching Blues,” a homage to the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac.
Then there’s his annual blues festivals where he’s got to jam on stage with heavy weights like Taj Mahal, ZZ Tops’ Billy Gibbons, Steven Tyler and Mick Fleetwood.
“And I’ve played with Charlie Musselwhite and B.B. King. Who can put that on their resume?” he notes.
A new blues album is in the works, says Willie. “I’ll definitely be creating another blues album, and I’m still going to pursue my heavy metal project and my Pink Floyd project. I’ve got to get moving on them.”
Performing on the slopes of Waikapu in a remarkable building, unlike any other on Maui, based on plans by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Willie hopes the venue will become a musical magnet.
“We want to put this club on the map,” he says. “We want to create another scene like Hapas was on Monday night and Mulligans on Wednesdays. The plan is to establish a club where our Maui celebrities can be comfortable enough to come and jam. I remember when Iron Maiden would come to Hapas and hang out. Stephen Stills came one night and George Benson jammed one night. Prince came and jammed. I want to bring that back.”[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]