Johnny Winter would’ve been proud. On what would’ve been that blues guitar icon’s 75th birthday, Eric Sardinas, an electric slide-guitarist from California, kept his spirit alive in a nearly two-hour concert at the Honokaa People’s Theatre last Saturday.
Metaphorically, Sardinas calls Winter his godfather. The two toured the islands years ago. Sardinas is no stranger to Hawaii. He’s been coming here since he was six and has family members and a best friend living on Oahu.
Sardinas played a pair of electrified Gibson Resonator guitars throughout the show. They have a unique jangly sound that conjures up fond memories of classic Delta Blues recordings. Behind him, a vintage Marshall amp was draped with an American flag over the front grill. I’m not sure if it’s for a visual effect, or to cosmetically hide years of scars from being ravaged and plummeted from by a ferocious guitar player. At first, the patriotic-dressed amp gave him some trouble, but he quickly showed it who’s boss.
In addition to his signature sound, Sardinas’ stage presence is unique. He’s covered in black from an oversized newsie cap, right down to his cowboy boots. Even his waist-length braided hair is black. The voice is gritty, raw – almost Steven Tyler-like, but with more soul. He likes to sing off mic at times. Jumping off stage, the impact from his boots hitting the wooden dance floor causes one of the metal tables in the VIP section to sound like a symphonic cymbal crashing. The sound intrigued him. He does it again, but this time more in rhythm to the song he’s playing. He looks around, and the audience is diggin’ it too.
Back on stage is bassist Chris Smith, playing a beautiful 3/4 upright that Hawi resident Jack Hutchinson loaned him for the night. An electric bass waits ready in a stand just in case. Smith romanced the instrument, waltzed, straddled, twirled, spanked, spun, caressed, swooned, held it on his lap like a huge brown dog, played it on his back, climbed the side – If it had legs, he probably could’ve ridden it out the front door like a proud paniolo down Mamane Street right to the nearby rodeo arena.
Sardinas briefly exited the stage, allowing Smith and drummer Demi Lee Solorio take individual solos. Vibrations from the bass drum were felt throughout the theatre’s floor and seats, Solorio’s veil of hair flying with every cymbal crash! “It wasn’t too loud was it?” quips Smith after the ten-minute drum solo is greeted with thunderous applause.
Repeated shouts of “ERIC!, ERIC!” ring out above the foot stomping as the crowd lures Sardinas and band back for an encore. Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” and a blues instrumental end the thrill-a-minute performance.
After the show, they hugged their way through the audience, then made their way to The Last Call Saloon where they sat in with local cigar-box guitarist Richard Johnston and fiddle player Jeff Quin. The unannounced loud jam lasted about an hour and didn’t seem to bother the next-door tourists at the Hotel Honokaa Club.
The day after the concert I got a call from Sardinas. Sunday morning, and I’m heading home with a bag of papayas and pumpkin bread from the farmer’s market. “Steve, I need to ask a favor.” He has my number because we did a phone interview a few weeks ago. “Our bass player is looking to borrow an upright bass like the one he played last night.” Sardinas and band had their final Big Island show scheduled at the Hilo Town Tavern for 7 PM.
Finding an upright bass, on a Sunday morning, on the East side of the island is no easy task, I quickly discovered! After a string of calls to several groggy “Hey, it’s too early, man!” musicians, I’m told to give Dianna Webb a ring. After a short chat, it turns out she had a bass and was willing to loan it out.
“Diana brought us a beautiful vintage Engelhardt upright bass,” wrote Sardinas in an email. “Mahalo for everything!!”
(Editor’s note: Mahalo to Dave Millington of Point Blank Audio for the amazing sound at the show.)
Be sure to visit Eric Sardinas’ official site for the latest music and tour info: http://www.ericsardinas.co.uk
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