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Wernicks Hit the Big Isalnd

Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels. A family trip in January 2001 included some unusual Pete & Joan gigs and opportunities to meet local musicians struggling along in Paradise.

Our long-awaited Hawaii trip was all we’d hoped, but was over just a little too soon. Traveling long distances can be jarring at times, but the contrast between seeing the sun go down at Sunset Beach on Oahu, and then the next morning driving home through falling snow, was a little much!

The first highlight of the trip was spending the evening at the lovely home of Jan and Barry Willis (old friends recently relocated from Colorado), where Jan hosted my “band dynamics” workshop. Six of the 13 attendees were members of the Big Island’s “house band”, the Voggy Mt. Ramblers, named after their local brand of fog. The Voggies have 2 slide guitars (what would you expect), some fine singing, and a love for good old bluegrass as well as some of the local music. We dug into work on their harmonies and instrumental sound, and the reports after their next practice were that the changes took well. Also, I got to mentor several other members of the local music community, everyone from some novice jammers to the accomplished multi-instrumentalist Steve Ryan, whose original tunes on MP3.com are well worth sampling (www.mp3.com/stringamajig).

Steve is a geologist, who lives within sight of the glow of the island’s active volcano, Kilauea. A few days later, Joan, Will, and I drove the circuit of the island and got to check out the national park with its amazing combination of rainforest and massive, absolutely vegetation-less lava fields. Steve hosted us in his large home-built quonset hut complete with recording studio, and his wife Dropati treated us to some great Fiji cuisine and their tasty greenhouse strawberries before sending us on our way the next day.

The remainder of the week featured beaches, snorkeling, boogie boarding, and just enjoying the beautiful variety of scenery of the big island. For a stretch of road, both sides are filled for miles with an unusual type of graffiti: names and messages spelled out in many pieces of white coral arranged on the black lava rocks. Different!

Banjo camper Bob Clarke hosted our first gig in Hawaii, at Kona’s Hard Rock Cafe. Sounds implausible, I know, but Kona is just not your typical place. It’s an open-air venue with a bluegrass-friendly clientele that really enjoyed a couple of hours of bluegrass, Pete & Joan style. Bob joined us on banjo and vocal for a number, and did himself proud. Afterwards, we enjoyed some beverages while some great old Flatt & Scruggs blared out over Hard Rock’s loudspeakers. Wish it could be like that at all the other Hard Rock Cafes!

Next day was highlighted by an afternoon radio program with a wonderful musical couple from Kauai, Ken Emerson and Michaelle Edwards. He plays top-notch Hawaiian steel guitar, she is a fine rhythm guitarist, and they both sing everything from swing and folk to Hawaiian melodies. We jammed on Ken’s cool-but-complicated breakdown, “Kamuela Bluegrass”, “Foggy Mt. Special”, and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” from the Pete & Joan record. Apparently our live acoustic music broke some precedents at the radio station, which otherwise concentrates on pop, but the deejay and staff were all worked up over our unplugged jamming. Acoustic music ambassadors, we.

From there it was off to the Aloha Theater in nearby Kainaliu — an old-time looking place with a first-rate cafe, and a sizeable theater with a fine sound system. Ken and Michaelle, and Joan and I each did a set and then we got up there together at the end for some spirited jamming. Some songs we had rehearsed, but when we did those and the crowd wanted more encores, we had to fly with no radar. Kind of a scary thing to do in front of a big crowd, but with everyone pulling together, it worked and we even got a standing ovation. What a pleasure to play with such talented folks, and I only wished my old associate Waldo Otto could see such a marvel as Ken in action on the steel guitar.

The next day it was on to Oahu for a short visit to the moving memorials at Pearl Harbor, and finishing with the beautiful sand and waves of the north shore. Last-minute shopping at the airport, a couple of planes and a couple of hours sleep later, and there we were back in the Colorado snow. But we’ll be back!

Special thanks to ex-Coloradans KonaBob and Shirley Stoffer of the Voggy Mt. Ramblers, who run the Konaweb web site and provided the nice photos you see here. For info about bluegrass in Hawaii, check out their site (http://www.konaweb.com/bluegrass). And extra-special thanks to Bob Clarke, without whom the trip wouldn’t have happened, and who did a great job keeping us busy with nice things to do. Bob is scheming about a festival on the Big Island next year, featuring local Hawaiian bands and some bluegrass folks imported from the mainland. He says the local bluegrass and Hawaiian music audiences would like the combination. I know I would, and it won’t take a lot of arm-twisting to get the Wernicks out to Hawaii again. The Aloha spirit is with us, and is already calling us back.

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