ʻUkulele-powered jam-band Kanekoa makes its Kahilu debut
Hitting the twenty-five-year mark is a milestone for any group these days, especially for the tight-knit jam band Kanekoa. “It’s been a long, cruel ride,” jokes the band’s lead singer, ukulelist, and founding member, Kaulana Kanekoa.
The band’s humble origins began at an open mic at Sir Wilford’s Coffee Shop in Lahaina, Maui. Kaulana and percussionist Travis Rice had worked together for a few years before they sat in with twelve-year-old ‘ukulele player Vince Esquire. “When the three of us locked in, we knew we had something different and began pushing the boundaries of the ‘ukulele,” recalled Kaulana. U-bassist “Uncle Don Lopez” joined Kanekoa in 2015 after playing with Willie K for 28 years.
Kanekoa is unique in that it performs without a setlist and relies on the crowd’s energy to determine what they’ll play next. At a recent show in Lake Tahoe, the crowd erupted so loudly in applause that the venue said they’d never heard that level of a reaction before from an audience.
“For a while, we had what we called our ‘standing ovation punch card,” recalled Lopez. “It was like we were trying to fill our punch card’, but receiving that reaction is very humbling. At our shows, I see people transported in a way you don’t normally witness, eyes closed, hands raised; it’s like we’re in church!”
When Travis Rice did a quick audience poll of how many people at the Kahilu Theatre had ever been to a Kanekoa show, the majority raised their hands. But by the end of the second set, the crowd was on their feet, cheering loudly and yelling for a hana hou. The band affectionately calls their fans Koa-heads, and they had some new converts last Saturday.
Kanekoa’s two-hour Kahilu show was a mix of originals and unique cover versions. “Lightest Load” from their latest album, “Songs from the Great Disruption,” segued into a medley of “Peace Frog” and “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors. “Don’t Let Go,” with its infectious cumbia/reggae rhythm, was another new one and was written by John Cruz.
One can’t help but stay riveted on lead uke player Vince Esquire when he cuts loose with his breakneck speed solos and taps into Exorcist-like head-spinning convulsions. In addition, Esquire employs an auto-wah effect on his pedal board that mimics Jerry Garcia’s ‘80s era guitar tone.
“When we play in Marin County, where people know The Dead, the twirlers [ecstatic dancers]come out, and they start bowing to Vince when he starts doing his Jerry-like stuff,” observed Rice.
While the Maui quartet paid homage to The Dead with “Bertha,” there was also a thunderous version of the Allman Brothers’ “Whippin’Post” in their Kahilu set.
“Gregg Allman was probably one of the greatest mentors I’ve ever had in my life,” noted Esquire. “We opened a show for him on Maui and traded info afterward. About a month later, I was invited to perform with the Allman Brothers Band at their famous Beacon Theater shows in New York, and that led to contributing tracks to Gregg Allman’s solo album ‘Low Country Blues.’”
With nine studio albums, eight live albums, and an Nā Hōkū Hanohano award for Best Reggae Album of 2016, there’s no stopping Kanekoa.
“We’re working on another album with producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos,” said Rice. “We’re redoing all the songs on ‘Under The Coconut Sky’ and will maybe call it ‘Return of the Coconut Sky.’ We also have a fall tour of Alaska and the West Coast and will perform at the Kennedy Center next year.”
Listen to an exclusive interview with Kanekoa.
Notes & Links
Hands of the Truth | Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) | Ever Since | Hypnotized | Jealous Hearts | Lightest Load/Riders on the Storm/Peace Frog |
Busting Rock | Dos Amantes | Don’t Let Go | The Run/Whippin’ Post | Nice One |
About the author: Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: ©2022 Steve Roby. Images are available for licensing.
Performance date: 13/August/2022
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