Kanekoa

In this section, we usually profile artists with gigs planned for the near future. This week we made an exception to rally support for something that might be, if we could only grab the attention of all potentially interested parties. In doing so we hope to increase demand. If there’s enough demand then perhaps we can bring Kanekoa back.

“We’re the most well-known band on Maui, and no one knows who we are,” says uke player Vince Esquire (that name should be familiar).

Judging by the crowd they drew at Kahale’s one recent Thursday and at Mulligan’s on the Blue the previous Saturday, at least a few dozen people have an inkling about these guys.

They reconstituted for less than two weeks in late February/early March—a blink compared to the 12 years they’ve been playing together. In band years that’s like 200. The occasion for their brief reunion? Drummer Travis Rice’s visit to Maui from Portland, Ore., where he now resides.

Kanekoa has both a lead and a rhythm uke player (uketarian? eucharist?) but no guitarist of which to speak. Esquire, apparently just as comfortable playing uke as he is on guitar in the Vince Esquire Band, strings complex and winding leads over rhythm uke player/vocalist Kaulana Kanekoa’s chord progressions. Kanekoa’s vocals are smokey and sweet, solid and soulful. Shawn Michael, who also plays in the Vince Esquire Band, holds down the bass side of things. Brett Nelson handles percussion. Rice, of course, is on drums. When he’s here, damn it.

The band is named, as one may surmise, after uke player Kanekoa. In Hawaiian, he says, his last name means “the wares of man.”

“Wares” is an extremely humble way to put it. Unlike a typical ware, Kanekoa’s musical product is not wrought, packaged and subsequently stored on a shelf until sold. Quite to the contrary, it’s something fresh and dynamic. 

A case in point: as my associates and I made our way into Kahale’s on the second of two gigs that constituted the band’s Maui reunion, the Doors’ “Peace Frog” radiated in all directions. Now, “Peace Frog” is an uncommon choice for a Doors cover, as well as one of their best songs. Imagine Robby Krieger’s screaming and nimble solos inlaid over the song’s same killer bass line, reincarnated by way of the nylon strings of the ever-underestimated uke. This, I thought, is what I consider magic.

Their set consisted primarily of original material, which melds that uke-powered mellow groove that one will only find in the isles with a sound vaguely reminiscent of the Dead, without all the dead air. The band’s originals are what truly showcase their penchant for dynamism. “Nice One” jumps up and down before easing into a melodic and slow groove. “Coconut Sky” is an island song in body and soul.

The guys say that with a sound like theirs, they feel most at home on the jam-band festival scene. That makes sense, but their sound is more complex than the same old, same old you tend to get with your run-of-the-mill jam outfit.

Esquire was about 11 when he started gigging with the other guys who constitute the band. The other players weren’t much older than Esquire, so needless to say, the Liquor Commission hovered as per standard whenever the gents would play. 

The band has since toured the Mainland. While gigging in Hollywood they caught the eye of a film director and wound up cast in the Farrelly brothers’ 2007 film The Heartbreak Kid.

With a story like that it’s hard to imagine Kanekoa completely disappearing from the map. But we need to spread the word. With increased awareness of what a gem this band is, perhaps we can get them to periodically assemble on-island for a few heavily in-demand appearances. Just a thought. MTW

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