A new video series showcases local talent
Back in mid-March, growing concerns over the Coronavirus pandemic caused promoters to cancel events and local venues to shutter their doors. While large capacity theatres like the Kahilu and Aloha have resorted to online Zoom classes to stay in touch with the community, Hilo’s Palace Theatre has taken a different approach, offering a well-produced video series titled Live From the Empty Palace since April 22.
The weekly episodes feature a variety of Big Island musicians and aerialists performing on stage with the empty theatre seats backlit behind them – 11 episodes are now on their YouTube channel, and twenty more wait to be premiered. The concept was co-conceived by the husband and wife team, writer/producer Zoe Eisenberg and Hilo Palace Executive Director Phillips Payson, as well as Drew Daniels. All were eager to stay creative during the shutdown and made use of video gear from previous indie film projects. “We were trying to figure out how to keep our community activated and make use of the theater space,” recalls Eisenberg.
Filling out their production crew is award-winning musician/songwriter Drew Daniels. He assists with rounding up talent, recording audio as well as acting as an additional camera operator. Daniels also came up with the series title. The fourth member of their all-volunteer team is Hilo sound engineer Pepe Romero – he regularly ran sound at the Palace before it went dark earlier this year.
Every other Friday a new production begins with three different performers scheduled over a five-hour period. Musicians get to perform two original songs and have the opportunity for a do-over if they don’t like a take. The multi-camera angles and audio are then processed in post-production, and two separate episodes are released online every Wednesday. Plans are on the table to add jugglers and comedians to the line-up.
Last Friday, I witnessed the taping of three episodes. The crew was well masked, and safety protocols were in place. Visually it seemed unusual, and maybe a bit eerie, that the musicians performed with their backs to an empty 500-seat theatre. But in this case, the camera is the audience. “We’re shooting from the stage into the auditorium to showcase the beauty of the Palace theater,” explained videographer Payson. “It’s such a historical landmark in the community and means so much to so many people, including the musicians, performers, and families, that have been coming here for generations.”
Originally from Alaska, 20-year-old Tiaya Ruggirello is a self-taught contortionist and aerialist currently based in Puna. Ruggirello is the second aerialist to perform in the video series, and got some coaching from Eisenberg, who is a co-founder of Aerial Arts Hawaii.
Starting with several unbelievable contortionist moves on a three-foot-tall platform, Ruggirello slowly made her way to a hoop suspended from the theatre’s tall ceiling. She twirled and spun with legs and arms going in different directions. In the background, a hypnotic instrumental played, titled “Kryvyi tanets” by the Ukrainian group DakhaBrakha and Port Mone.
After two attempts, Ruggirello watched the playback on a video monitor and decided on doing a third which was her best. Smiling, she exclaimed, “I really tried hard on that one!” The proud crew agreed.
Bending Elbows is a Hilo-based acoustic string band with a raw country sound. The trio first met while paddling canoes, long before picking up instruments or even thinking about starting a group. “Country music wasn’t our thing when we started, but it was what our parents listened to–we loved it too–and the direction our music took,” remembered bassist Mark Panek.
Bending Elbows features Clinton Alexander (vocals, ukulele), Ryan Tanner (vocals, guitar), and Mark Panek (upright bass, vocals). Alexander was born on the Big Island, while Tanner is from Los Angeles, and Panek is from Long Island. Friday’s video session marked their first appearance at the Palace.
In their two-song set, the trio included “That Lost Highway,” a song Tanner penned about losing his house to the island’s 2018 volcano eruption. “I wrote it in a couple of days,” Tanner said, adding, “If you’re struggling through anything, I think you can identify with the lyrics.” The tune is also the title of their 2019 EP.
“Country Town,” their second number, was written by Alexander a few years ago and also appears on the same EP. “It’s just about playing music together with friends, Kanikapila style, and having a good time,” mentioned Alexander in our post-show interview.
Satisfied with their two takes during their Palace session, Panek politely asked, “Is it ok if we play a little more? It’s been a while, and it feels good to be back on stage.” Bending Elbows is a regular at a number of Eastside venues, and hadn’t performed live since March. Their request is a consistent theme the Palace crew often hear. “Everyone comes in a little bit nervous,” noted Eisenberg, “and then, all of a sudden, it’s like riding a bicycle.” After playing a few songs, a thrilled Panek declared, ‘Oh man, that felt great. I really needed that!’”
Born in Louisiana and growing up on Oahu, Robert Savery got his start with music in the fourth grade. “In Hawaiian Studies class, we either had to wear a lava-lava wrap-around and dance hula, or play the ukulele,” recalled Savery. Robert chose the latter and eventually started a band that played teen clubs.
In 1987, Robert and his brother Richard formed The Savery Brothers, a six-piece group specializing in old-style country-Western music playing gritty honky-tonks. After winning the San Diego finals of the Marlboro Country Music Talent Roundup, The Savery Brothers opened for country heavyweights Alabama, Merle Haggard, and The Judds. The L.A. Times touted The Savery Brothers as “a force in country music,” and Billboard called them “Country music standouts.” When not on tour, Robert listened to a wide variety of music including Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso. His current music reflects that diversity.
Before calling the Big Island home 12 years ago, Savery lived on Kauai for seven years. “My wife and I live out on the Pahoa side, grow lots of food, and love the life here,” Savery said. “It’s a very fulfilling place to be.”
Savery was joined by trumpeter Michaelaloha Elam and bassist Loren Antolik. The trio played “Under The Monkeypod Tree” and “I’ve Got a Song To Sing.” Savery said he writes songs every day, including “a bunch of bad ones,” but the abundance of material allows him to pick out the good ones he keeps.
The Palace Theatre Looking Forward
“We’re going to start off with limited film engagement screenings and going to rope off every other row, responded Payson when asked how the theatre will gradually reopen to the public. “Each group of patrons will take their own row with ample space for people to stay apart from each other. Masks will be enforced. We’re taking this time while we’re dark, to do a big sterilization effort by cleaning up the whole theatre. We’re doing a lot of renovation projects that have been in the works for a long time, so the quarantine phase has kind of worked to our benefit. A whole facade restoration with scaffolding is happening now, things we couldn’t do with an audience around. We’re making the most of this difficult time, and still trying to figure out how we can get back to big gatherings and big productions again.”
The Empty Palace series is a great way to explore the Big Island’s diverse talents, especially during these extraordinary times. Their YouTube Mix List can be found here.
You can see Tiaya Ruggirello in the upcoming Aerial Arts Production of Alice in the Neon Jungle, tentatively slated for November 2020.
Follow Robert Savery on Facebook.
Big Island Music Magazine will be starting a podcast called Songs & Stories soon. You’ll be able to listen to in-depth interviews with local musicians including several mentioned in this article.
Photos: Steve Roby