Willie K does just about everything — a little jazz, a bit of blues, a serving of Hawaiian, a dash of country, and even drops names — at the Blue Note Hawaii, Outrigger Waikiki Hotel.
He is the lone island headliner, who made his first appearance April 19, who has been signed once a month through the end of this year (see schedule).
Yet Uncle Willie laments, “I hate Waikiki.” The comment comes off as a gag, but he prefers his comfy and modest, Mulligan’s on the Blue, at Wailea Blue Course on Maui, even though he fits into the hip-and-now ambiance of what used to be the Main Showroom of the Outrigger, the decades-long base of the Society of Seven.
The Hawaiian showman is a society of one, backed by two haole musicians — Jerry Buyers on bass and Chris Thomas on drums — and he packs a solid sound and delivers a sizzling show, despite the disliking tone.
He takes on an introductory role, just in case. “First time you see a real Hawaiian,” he chortles, armed with his trusty ukulele. “You thought only a young slim Asian guy would be playing the uke?” he says, alluding of course to Jake Shimabukuro.
His conversational patter is raw, spontaneous, very local, but he works at warming up the house, mentioning that his musician dad “played ukulele on the Ed Sullivan Show.”
Initially, he’s deliberately the Hawaiian Willie, jazzercising a slow-tempoed “Beyond the Reef,” with ukulele riffs signaling the proper logistics of time and place. It's probably a smart choice — a composition by a Canadian, Jack Pitman, which doesn't ever mention Hawaii but has become one of the signatures of the hapa-haole genre — because the tune is a classic among locals and visitors alike I digress, but Napua Stevens was the first to record the tune in 1949, with Bing Crosby covering it in 1950, spreading the aloha internationally for his generation of fans. In 1966, Elvis Presley recorded it, too — proof of its cross-generational appeal.
Then the Traditional Willie dusts off “Red Sails in the Sunset,” evoking a warm summertime afterglow, making it an unexpected medley with a refrain from “Over the Rainbow.” Then, a quip: “Not all of us sing ‘Over the Rainbow,’” which, of course, is a reference to the global sensation of the late Israel Kamakawiwoole the past two decades, with its repetitive oooh-ooohing. This is a mashup of Hawaiian Willie and Traditional Willie, like enjoying fish with poi.
How about the Spanish Willie? There’s a framework of the fiery and flirtatious … along with what might be dubbed his “flamenco uke.”
More morsels follow. A Yiddish Willie stance, a la Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” with body language. Then a non-musical Korean Willie, with a bit of raspy, throaty sounds that Mainlanders might not understand.
The Italian Willie pumps up “O Solo Mio,” with all the histrionics and flavors that demonstrate how well-oiled his pipes are.
And then a turn-around, for the Maui (and Wowie) Willie, with a frisky and fun “For You and I,” begging for a bit of hula (but there’s none) and then a salute to Bill Dana (“My name Jose Jiminez”), who used to be a Maui resident, with that inevitable and durable (but sometimes forgotten) novelty, “I’m Going to Maui Tomorrow, to Marry Tamara Malone.”
There’s a brief hana hou of sorts, with another stab at “Over the Rainbow,” the Judy Garland version, complete with a whistling bird and a mention of Aunt Em.
By now, it’s time for the Jazz Willie, with a measure of funky blues for good measure, via “Too Bad,” a signature from Willie whenever he assembles his Blues Band. The phraseology, the arrangement, the soul-shaking measures suit that husky Willie voice.
Old Willie, aka Hawaiian-Style Willie, takes centerstage via signatures like “You Kuuipo” and “Katchi Katchi Makawao” and “My Molokai Woman,” from the initial time frame of Willie's shining and ascending and shimmering his bright light in the Hawaiian constellation. Oh, yes, there’s also chatter about Harley Davidsons.
The standing ovation and elation from the audience are indicative of his power and prowess, of his passion and performance, and his venerability and his versatility.
So herewith is the Compleat Willie, the One-and-Only-Willie, and he’s often called Uncle Willie, who ultimately is Mr. Everything. Support and rally around him at an upcoming Tuesday at the Blue Note and be among the first to applaud this Waikiki treasure. Even if he doesn’t particularly like Waikiki.
When: 6:30 and 9 p.m. May 3, repeating June 21, July 5, Aug. 2, Sept. 6, Oct. 4, Nov. 8, Dec. 13
Where: Blue Note Hawaii, Outrigger Waikiki Hotel