Concert Review

Hawaiian Grins and Chicken Skin

Two island legends, together again for the first time last night at Seattle’s Triple Door.

By Eric Scigliano September 22, 2010

Hawaiian music legends Willie K (left) and Ledward Kaapana play the Triple Door. Photo by Eric Scigliano.

It was a night of grins and chicken skin, as they call goosebumps on the islands. Two giants of Hawaiian music had agreed to meet on stage for the first time—far from home, at Seattle’s Triple Door, an emerging Hawaiian musical mecca. Ledward Kaapana and Willie K had traded licks at the odd Christmas garage party. But it was hard to imagine how their styles—about as different as Hawaiian guitar sounds can get—could mix. Seattle’s Led Heads and other cognoscenti of Hawaiian music gladly paid to find out; the show sold out weeks before, and latecomers lined up pleading for standing room.

Led Kaapana is a master of slack-key guitar, the open-tuned finger-picking that’s become emblematic of Hawaiian music in recent decades. (Forget the ukuleles—except Led plays uke too.) He’s not exactly a purist—classical, surf, and country flourishes all trickle in; if Segovia and Dick Dale played slack key (and when Chet Atkins did) they might have sounded like Led. But he’s a pure virtuoso.

Willie K., the Maui superman, is a very different, wilder animal. “My style’s not really slack-key-friendly,” he chuckled. “I’m kind of a musical sponge.” To prove it, he belted out an operatic “Danny Boy” that raised rafters and a standing ovation. Even on Hawaiian classics his guitar attack— rock-charged, flamenco-colored strumming—is anything but slack. And his tenor voice is so big and stirring you’d think the late Iz Kamakawiwo’ole (the voice that’s launched a thousand soundtracks) had come back to life.

But when the showdown finally came Willie started meekly, eying Led’s darting fingers. By the first number’s end they’d hit their groove, twined their harmonies, and burst out grinning and joking. “My god, he’s sexy!” Willie exclaimed as Led’s lilting falsetto soared beyond gravity’s reach. On a rowdy traditional cowboy song (something about encouraging a bull in his procreative duties), Willie burst into a stomping hula, hitting a chord between each gesture. It was a performance not to be forgotten, nor heard or seen again.

This rare meet-up was the brainchild of Ken Levine, a former Seattle filmmaker who’s cycled between here and Kauai over the past three decades. Levine mostly disdained Hawaiian music till he heard Led Kaapana’s, which so inspired him that he brought Led and another local star, Mike Kaapa, to the Triple Door for a pair of concerts in 2008—and recorded them. The resulting disk, Force of Nature, won last year’s Grammy for Hawaiian instrumental. Who knows what might come of this match-up?.

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