It’s been 76 days since blues guitarist Tomomi Isobe played his last gig on the Big Island. That’s not an easy statement to make for a musician, who proudly boasted about his regular six-night per-week performance schedule. Isobe performed his last public show at the Lava Lava Beach Club in front of noisy tourists at crowded tables on March 18.
Watch a clip of Tomomi Isobe at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar in the video player below.
Back then, confusion from the COVID-19 crisis was just starting to settle in. Social distancing was new to our vocabulary, and face masks weren’t yet required at public gatherings. The future for live music events appeared uncertain and unpredictable.
In May, Southern rock’s Travis McCready performed to a crowd in masks in the country’s first concert of the social-distancing era and showed us what music fans could expect as venues gradually re-opened. About a week ago, Mayor Kim allowed restaurants to offer dine-in services, and Gov. David Ige recently approved an order to reopen more businesses on June 19, allowing up to 50 people for indoor events and 100 people for outdoor events. Word quickly spread on social media that live music was coming back to the Big Island.
Last week, Isobe returned to the spotlight with a gig at A-Bay’s Island Grill, and then on Friday for two shows at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar in Kona.
As I pulled onto Ali’i Drive, where Gertrude’s is located, the streets were eerily quiet and tourist t-shirt shops shuttered. Normally in June, folks would be lined up for ice cream, clogging crosswalks, and strolling along the shoreline.
When I entered Gertrude’s, I noticed the capacity had been reduced to about 50 seats in the main room with tables spaced apart. In her stage intro, co-owner Marlina Shirley thanked everyone for sanitizing their hands as they came in and wearing face masks when walking around the club. Folks could only dance with their partner and must keep a six-foot distance from other guests. “We don’t want to be the ‘COVID police’ here,” she added.
Isobe’s blues trio featured Patrick Calvarho (bass) and Bruce David (drums). His set was filled with standard blues classics, and he let a young man, who brought his own trumpet, sit in on “What You Won’t Do for Love.” The crowd wasn’t shy and headed to the dance floor to cut loose on a Friday night. One man danced freely, arms waving like he was at an outdoor concert. Maybe it was the full strawberry moon overhead, the weekend kicking in, or the fact folks have been cooped up too long, but the energy level in the room was high.
One of the nice features for groups playing Gertrude’s is that they get to keep the door cover charge as well as have a tip jar on stage.
With the island’s current COVID count low and manageable, we’re starting to see some restrictions loosen – reopening travel for interisland is scheduled for June 16th. A new agreement between Japan and Hawaii would likely allow incoming visitors from Japan, who have met certain safety thresholds, to bypass Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers.
While I have hope and aspirations that the local economy is starting to improve, I got a call on the way home from the Hawaii Health Department wanting to conduct a survey about COVID-19. A grim reminder that we’re still in the middle of this global pandemic.
It’s going to be a slow crawl back to what we remember as normal in our local venues, but it’s a start.
Steve Roby is a music photojournalist, 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 and video: Steve Roby