Blues is not a musical genre you often hear in our local clubs or even on the radio. We tend to “import” our blues from the mainland – most recently Jimmie Vaughan brought us some authentic Texas blues. That’s not to say we don’t have a handful of competent players, or that the Big Island doesn’t have serious blues lovers. In the 1990s, there was the Kona-based Hawaiian Blues Society who reached out to fans with their Bluesletter publication. And currently, the East Hawaii Blues Association resides in Kurtistown.
One person who wants to keep blues music alive on the Big island is concert promoter Zackery Kuyten who runs Off The Grid Productions. Kuyten kicked off the first Big Island Blues Fest in 2017, and it’s the only one of its kind. This year marks the return for a third concert event. Set on the beautiful luau grounds of the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, the six-hour concert featured three bands, plenty of ono food and drink, and a spacious area for those who wanted to boogie to the blues under a star-filled sky.
Ronnie V & The Family Band
Ronnie V’s six-piece ensemble opened the show and played an eclectic variety of Americana music – country, roots rock, folk, and bluegrass with the occasional nods to legends like Lead Belly and the Memphis Jug Band. V’s all-acoustic Jam Band features Kevin Snow (mandolin), Jerry Adams (cajon/percussion), Shaun Elise (violin), Jason Fischer (harmonica), David Lawrence (lead guitar/vocals), and Ronnie V (rhythm guitar/vocals). One of the highlights of their set happened when V brought out his prized nickel-plated 1940 Resonator guitar and played “Country Boy.”
Ronnie’s musical roots date back about 15 years ago with a group called the Apple Dumpling Gang. The Big Island band mostly played backyard jams with the occasional live show at Hippie Henry’s Farm and Coconut’s (now Gertrude’s Jazz Bar). V moved to Oahu for five years before moving back to the Big island and forming his Family Band.
V and the Family Band have played all three Blues Fests, and you can catch them at Ola Brew (Wednesdays) and the Kona Coast Resort (Sundays). In September, they play the Kauai Folk Festival with Taj Mahal and Peter Rowan. Ronnie V will also play Shakastock, the Woodstock 50th tribute show at the Kahilu Theatre, on October 26. V and Lawrence can also be heard on 105.3 LAVA (KBGX-FM).
Tomomi Isobe’s Blues Band
Guitarist Tomomi Isobe was born and raised in Japan and has been singing and playing music for the last 40 years. Like many others on the Blues Fest bill, this is his the third year playing the event. Backing him up were Patrick Calvarho (bass) and Ronnie Atwater (drums/vocals).
From Japan, Isobe moved to Oahu briefly before landing in Atlanta, Georgia, where he spent 23 years playing various venues and soaking up southern-style blues. Isobe first picked up on the blues when his older brother brought home Johnny Winter’s 1974 Saints and Sinners album. “That [record ]changed my life,” proudly admitted the guitarist. “I may have heard some blues before that, but Johnny Winter served as an eye-opener for me. I had an acoustic guitar at the time and went to get an electric guitar at a music instrument shop that my mother’s friend owned. I lied and told them that my mother said it was okay for me to put a guitar on her credit account. My mother happened to be out of town at the time. I picked up a Burny guitar (a sub-brand of Fernandes Guitars), it was an SG copy of Gibson. At the time it cost about 42,000 yen, which is about $400 right now. That was 45 years ago. My mom punished me when she found out. She couldn’t return it because I scuffed my initials on the guitar.”
Isobe’s two-hour show featured original material along with classic songs from BB King, Jimi Hendrix, along with a selection of old school rhythm & blues tunes. Isobe is probably the busiest musician on the island, playing six nights weekly at venues like Huggo’s on the Rocks, A Bay’s Island Grill, and Lava Lava Beach Club. The guitarist says he’s currently working on a new album that he hopes will receive a Na Hoku Hanohano nomination
The Scott & Larry Show
Making its concert debut at this year’s Blues Fest was the Scott & Larry Show. The five-piece band features Scott Reagan and Larry Dupio. Reagan’s the lead singer for the Naalehu-based classic rock band Bottle of Blue, and Dupio is a Na Hoku Hanohano Award winning guitarist from Hilo. The rest of the band included Dave Ojeda (bass), Noa Eads (drums), Andrew Dupio (rhythm guitar), and guitarist David Lawrence returned to the stage to play lead on a few songs. Reagan and Dupio have played together at a pair of Six-String Fling concerts in 2018/19.
Dupio’s introduction to the blues began with a live BB King album that he and a friend purchased as kids. “We ran home, put the record on, sat back and went – WOW!,” recalled the now seasoned blues guitarist. Lightnin’ Larry Dupio, as he’s best known, has been a staple on the music scene for many years, and is finishing up his seventh album set for an October release. “It’s called Love and Lightening,” said Dupio. “It’s a mix of love and blues songs and features a song with Scott Reagan.”
Vocalist Reagan received his first blues injection as a teenager via the radio. “The classic rock station I listened to did a lunch-time blues hour segment,” remembered Reagan. “It was Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy.’ It made me jump up and go, ‘Hey! Wait a minute!’ I was probably 12 or 13 at the time, and it really struck a chord with me. I grew up in Maine and started going to blues festivals every year.”
Reagan continues to play the west side’s club circuit with his band, and recently partnered with Shelly Williams to form a Big Island event production company called Rocket and Rise. “We formed the company to help raise the bar of entrainment on the island, and get everyone’s entertainment expectations more on mainland standards,” said Reagan in a backstage interview.
There’s something special about an outdoor concert, especially ones like this year’s Blues Fest. From my vantage point, I could see folks on the nearby beach watching the waves roll in and catching a guitar lick or two that drifted over them from the concert site. I imagine you could hear it up on Ali’i Drive as well. Promoter Zackery Kuyten has started a great annual event on the Big Island, and I hope he brings it back around next year.
Listen to extended interviews with Blues Fest Performers.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos/video: Steve Roby