As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cancel concert events worldwide, many Big Island entertainment venues have made tough decisions to either shut down temporarily or stay open. With more cases now appearing in the State, the few that decided to stay open last week have now closed their doors. However, I did find a few exceptions.
Some Big Island musicians have taken to live streaming on social media to stay in touch with fans, while those that work on the industry side, like Mana Music and Sage Sounds, have come up with creative recording or rehearsal packages for musicians to keep their chops up.
Tomi Isobe, one of the hardest working and busiest musicians on the Big Island, is still doing live gigs. “I used to work six nights per week, and now I’m down to five since the Blue Dragon Tavern closed last week,” Isobe said as he set up his stage gear for his weekly performance at the Lava Lava Beach Club. It’s business as usual or maybe even busier at the popular open-air restaurant located on Anaeho’omalu Bay in the Waikoloa Beach Resort. As I entered their jammed parking lot Wednesday afternoon, I finally found a spot in the “additional parking area.”
On Tuesday, Governor Ige issued a host of guidelines asking visitors to stay away from Hawaii and directing bars to close. Big Island’s Mayor Harry Kim issued a less restrictive statement allowing establishments to address how they’ll minimize risks to their customers. “Restaurants, bars, and places of worship may make their own decision as to open or close,’’ Kim said.
Lava Lava Beach Club’s website has no indication that anything has changed for them since most restaurants have switched to take-out service only. When patrons arrive on the site, the first thing they see is a new policy about waitlist seating procedures: “If you are placed on the list you can take a stroll along the beach, grab a drink, play some games on the lawn or snap some very Instragramable pictures by our surfboards or vintage VW Bus.”
I had contacted Tomi on Wednesday to ask permission to shoot some video of his performance at one of the few live music venues still open on the island. I’ve known Tomi for three years now and have covered his shows at the Aloha and Palace Theatres, and the annual Blues Fest in Kona.
Tomi said he still performs at Huggo’s, Lava Lava’s sister club, A-Bay’s Island Grill, the Waikoloa Cinema Bistro, and the Fairmont Orchid, a resort not far from these other venues. As I was setting up my camera gear, Tomi introduced me to a fellow musician and to the club’s manager, who both reached out to shake my hand. I said, “We’re supposed to do the elbow-bump now,” as I extended it toward their open hands. It was as if “social distancing” hadn’t become part of the vernacular nor behavior here.
Tomi’s a talented musician, and it’s been a while since I’ve heard him play. Normally he plays electric guitar and prefers authentic blues songs by B.B. King and others. On Wednesday, however, he played acoustic with crowd favorites like “Tears in Heaven” and his original “Lady Sunshine.” For a few numbers, he brought out Pua, a local hula dancer.
The setting seemed surreal. While Tomi sang Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the line “the livin’ is easy” set the mood as patrons were drinking happy hour cocktails, eating pupus, laughing, roaming the beach, oblivious to the emerging public gathering restrictions around the islands, and seemingly unconcerned by the increasing numbers of infections and deaths from the still-developing virus pandemic. Meanwhile, all over the island, venues are closing their doors, employees are being laid off, county mayors are suggesting people stay away, there are even protestors at airports telling visitors to go home. Will this be among the last of the live sunset beach concerts we’ll see for awhile?
Update: As of March 23, 2020, the Lava Lava Bech Club has joined other Big Island venues and has temporarily closed.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, 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: Sharon McCutcheon and Steve Roby. Video: Steve Roby