“How many of you guys are nervous?” asked Honoka’a High’s music director Gary Washburn at last Friday’s Johnny Nicholas concert at the People’s Theatre. Only a few of his multi-talented students raised their hands – several had been through this drill before.
Washburn won’t admit it, but he’s a hometown hero in Honokaa. Under his leadership, Honokaa High School was recognized by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation for outstanding music education. In 2011, they received a Grammy Signature Schools Award and Washburn was named a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction.
Over the past four decades, many of his students have found various careers in the music industry like Ryan Hiraoka, a Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning recording artist and music producer. Several came up to shake Washburn’s hand and thank him before the show. Washburn’s Honokaa Jazz Band just released their 18th CD, Playin’ in Traffic last year, and hope it gets a coveted Na Hoku Hanohano nomination this Spring. If so, it would make them the State’s first high school band to ever achieve that status.
For tonight’s concert, Washburn selected 12 primary players from the 34 band members that make up the Honokaa Jazz Project band. Most are seniors and some have gone through his music program since 7th grade.
Washburn and Austin blues guitarist Johnny Nicholas have collaborated for four years now. Nicholas was a member of the country group Asleep at the Wheel and also has had a successful career as a solo artist. The guitarist has played the Big Island numerous times with his band Hell Bent and as back up to fellow blues and roots R&B legends Delbert McClinton and Marcia Ball. In previous years, Nicholas and Washburn had toured multiple islands with the students, but this year they stayed on the Big Island with three venue shows and two house concerts.
During week-long rehearsals, Nicholas and his drummer John Chipman tutored the young musicians on technique and stage performance. “It’s an opportunity that’s not offered by any other school on the island,” said Washburn to the People’s Theatre crowd. “This collaboration raises the bar that much higher, and as a result everyone works much harder.”
Throughout the Jazz Project’s 35-minute opening set, various members were given the spotlight to solo. Some of the outstanding performances came from vocalist Kaylynn Iona and keyboardist Francis Alutra. Both flawlessly backed up Nicholas during his set as well.
Nicholas and Chipman played several numbers together before inviting various Jazz Project members to back them up. Their 90-minute set featured a variety of crowd favorites from the blues, Cajun, swing, folk, and barrelhouse rock ’n’ roll genres. Nicholas was delighted to tell the crowd he just got back the rights to his long out-of-print 1977 album, Too Many Bad Habits. In the process of re-issuing it as a boxed set, he discovered many long-forgotten recordings in the studio session tapes, and they now appear on a special bonus disc of rare, previously unreleased performances. The two-disc set has been completely remastered and nominated for a Grammy for Best Boxed Set or Limited-Edition Package.
Toward the end of his set, Nicholas pulled out his prized 1934 National “Don” resonator steel guitar (above). It’s an extremely rare instrument – less than 100 were ever made and less than half of those are known to have survived. The concertgoers were treated to the title track from his 2016 release, Fresh Air. Nicholas called the song “a prayer for the modern and stressful world,” and said it is one of his most requested tunes. Using a slide bar, the guitar’s sweet tone rung throughout the historic theatre.
As the showed ended, Nicholas invited everyone out to the lobby for an informal meet-and-greet and to get merch signed.
Honoka’a Jazz Project Setlist
Honeydew | A Change is Gonna Come | I Wanna Be Like You | How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) | Cadillac | It Hurts So Bad | Cry Me Out | Route 66
Johnny Nicholas Setlist
Hellbent For The Promised Land | Don’t Say I Never Told You So |Move On Down The Line | Blues Notes In The Rain |Too Many Bad Habits | How Do You Follow A Broken Heart | Bayou Blues | My Rice Ain’t Got No Gravy | Last Meal | I’m Broke Again | Rockin’ My Blues To Sleep | Rain Down Tears | Honey Drippin’ Baby | Before I Grow Too Old | Hey Hey Hey | Fresh Air | Where You At
To find out more about Johnny Nicholas and Hell Bent, visit:http://johnnynicholasblues.com
Keep up with the Honokaa Dragon Jazz Band on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/honokaajazzband/
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and 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: Steve Roby