Six months into the pandemic, trying to recapture some type of normalcy has been a difficult task for many Big Island entertainment venues. Gertrude’s Jazz Bar in Kona reopened in early June but closed July 2 for two weeks after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. The open-air bar on Ali’i Drive came back vibrantly for another three weeks of live shows only to close once again August 2– the property is currently in escrow.
Normally at this time of year, the Kahilu Theatre would be announcing its schedule for its upcoming season. It’s their 40th. Instead, they’ve been busy upgrading and remodeling the interior while doing a series of outdoor fundraising concerts at the Mauna Lani Resort’s CanoeHouse Restaurant. Last Sunday’s sold-out Blayne Asing concert (the Kahilu’s third in the series) proved to be a successful venture for everyone involved.
In an upcoming Songs & Stories podcast, Aristic Director Chuck Gessert explains that the community can look forward to four state-of-the-art cameras capturing angles you’d never see from your seat and a new subscription-based streaming series that’ll reach fans on a global scale. These aspirations are in a holding pattern until Governor Ige gives large venues the green light to reopen.
Before attending the Kahilu fundraiser, concertgoers are sent an email with a list of guidelines to follow. Before admittance to the property, David, a member of the security staff, greets you and takes your temperature. The established threshold is 100.4F. There’s no valet parking, but there’s ample space in the vacant hotel’s vast lot. There’s even a golf cart that will shuttle you right to the CanoeHouse, and back if you don’t want to tackle the long staircase just past the lobby.
Face masks are required, and sanitizing stations are ubiquitous. If you have a lawn seat ($100), you can bring your own food and utensils, but no alcoholic beverages or ice coolers. There are 40 lawn seats, in pairs, spread out in a semi-circle in front of the stage.
Indoor and patio seats (50 total) run $225 each, including dinner, and sit back about 30 feet from the stage. The elegant meal features a five-course feast including Wagyu skirt steak. Wagyu beef comes from black Wagyu bulls, a Japanese breed that is said to be incredibly delicious.
Before the show, I walked the shoreline and looked out at the empty beach that would normally be filled with tourists sun tanning or splashing about in the water. All you could hear were the trade winds. A sign in front of a pair of lit tiki torches read, “Resort has suspended operations,” yet another reminder of the crisis we’re living in.
I was then greeted by Lehi, a dedicated 30-year resort employee, who lives in Hilo, and travels 150 miles roundtrip for his commute. He’s been furloughed but volunteered to help out with Sunday’s event. Lehi held a positive outlook and shared his thoughts as we strolled the edge of the property.
“Music holds us together as a community,” said Sanjiv Hulugalle, general manager of Mauna Lani, in his pre-show stage introductions. He expressed his delight to be part of a recent collaboration with the Kahilu and was followed by Chuck Gessert.
From the main stage to the Mike Luce Studio, Nā Hōkū Hanohano winner Blayne Asing has been a popular favorite at several Kahilu shows. The O’ahu born singer/songwriter brought along Richard Heirakuji (bass) from Hawi. Both have worked together over the past 10 years. On drums was Steve Bader, one of the organizers for the annual East Hawaii Jazz & Blues Festival, and a polished musician from Hilo. Asing referred to him as a “Jazz Cat that can play anything.”
Asing’s vocals are velvety smooth and songs are heartwarming. I hear elements of José Feliciano in his style, but he cites James Taylor as one of his many influences.
Asing, his wife, and two children moved to the Big Island earlier this year, just before the pandemic hit. The musician is also a stay-at-home dad, while his wife works in health care.
The singer’s 90-minute set was mostly filled with love songs, either about his family or about the ‘aina. In a pre-show interview I did with him, he spoke about a certain line in his hit song “Molokai On My Mind,” and how it has touched people from as far away as the East Coast.
The line, “There is a place I go to see the evening sky/Where the poet and the dreamer meet each night” was inspired by a moment he had near Kaana, the birthplace of hula. “I was standing on the altar and you could just feel the mana when you’re looking out at Lanai and Mauna Kea is way off in the distance,” recalled Asing of this peaceful memory. “The sun was setting, and the moon was rising, and both were in the sky at the same time. The sun was the poet and the moon was the dreamer, and this where they come to meet each other at the end of every day.”
Asing’s concert was livestreamed via Facebook Live and was seen by over 13,000 viewers on Mauna Lani’s, the Kahilu’s, and Big Island Music Magazine’s Facebook page. Fans checked in from Vancouver, Greece, as well as Hawaii.
Kahilu’s Interim Executive Director Mimi Kerley said they were going to hold off announcing any upcoming fundraiser concerts. “With all the changes happening,” remarked Kerley, “we want to make sure we’re on the up-and-up. “
Photos: Steve Roby
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 Editor of Big Island Music Magazine and hosts the podcast Songs & Stories.