Blues guitarist Seth Freeman made his Big Island venue debut last Thursday. He’s been here before but played mostly private estate gigs or sat in with local ax slingers. Shame. This is one talented multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who deserves a large venue with good lighting and proper sound. Instead, he’s playing the mai-tai circuit on this first go-around. The Blue Dragon Tavern show was Gig #1 out of four in a row for this mini-tour.
It’s easy to compare Freeman’s guitar style to so many other icons, and you can hear the embedded influences – Hendrix, B.B. King, Warren Hayes. There’s a gospel feel to his vocals and stage presence. His right hand formed a fist to emphasize a lyric as a preacher might do during a sermon. He never fully let’s go of the baby-blue Strat even when he steps over to ignite the lap steel guitar a few inches away.
Freeman comes from a long line of musicians in his family, and you can see that passion pour out in every note he plays. When we did a phone interview a few weeks back, I thought I heard him say that his grandmother was one of “40” musicians on his father’s side that played music. Seth corrected me in a pre-show chat – what he said was 14. But after talking to another family member about it, he said 40 is probably accurate after all! “Don’t change it,” Freeman said.
Freeman’s first 75-minute set got the crowd on their feet dancing and bouncing around like energizer bunnies. It was a mix of originals and a few R&B classics tossed in, like Brooke Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” and Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” He doesn’t use a setlist but has a long list of songs that are handwritten on a piece of paper. The list sits on the stage floor near the drummer for reference. The band is so tight, Freeman just starts a few notes and they fall in right on cue. He’ll occasionally cut a look to drummer Keith Anderson to get his attention and then directs how he wants the song to close. Rik Nielsen was on bass and added some lovely harmony vocals on several songs.
I’d heard the Blue Dragon had some local restrictions like no music after 9 p.m. on weeknights, and the volume had to be kept at a certain level, but that wasn’t the case tonight. Freeman had it cranked. The newly re-opened venue is still working out some bugs like oddly placed stage lighting – only three overhead LEDs. There were a few occasions when the guitarist would tilt his head upward during an explosive solo and you could see his intense facial expressions, but for the most part, he and his trio were in the shadows on the small stage.
The Blue Dragon is located in a usually dry part of the island. Since the venue has no roof where the stage area is, it was open to some sprinkles that turned to rain (briefly). The dance floor cleared out quickly, tables abandoned, and folks found shelter in the narrow-covered edge that lines the perimeter of the hexagon (?) shaped building, while the music played on.
Hilo’s “Lightening” Larry Dupio came up for the second half of the show, and it was nice to see him jam with Freeman. Dupio told me, “We studied from the same playbook.” They opened with The Allman Brothers’ “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” and traded solos during the rest of the set. Dupio has a new CD out that just came called Love and Lightening and is planning a release party at the Dragon in the near future.
Freeman has two albums out – a self-titled debut (2013) and Acoustic (2014) – both well worth adding to your collection. You can find them at all the usual places and his website.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. 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: Steve Roby