COURTESY THE BAREFOOT NATIVES
Eric Gilliom and Willie Kahaialii say there are no limitations when they play together as the Barefoot Natives.
The Natives are Restless (and these guys like it that way)
Depending on whom you ask, Oahu residents are either a victim of circumstance or witnesses to a savvy bit of promotional planning on the part of Maui's Barefoot Natives.
» Place: Hawaiian Hut
» Time: 8:30 p.m. Friday (doors open at 8 p.m.)
» Tickets: $35
» Call: (808) 244-0800
When Willie Kahaialii and Eric Gilliom visited Italy at the beginning of May, guests at promoter Marek Lieberberg's 60th birthday got a sneak preview of the duo's self-titled release. The album officially hit stores May 23, with the guys playing gigs on Maui and the Big Island before traveling to Oahu this week.
"I guess you could leave that one up to the promoters," said Kahaialii of the strategy to visit the neighbor islands first. "It's not that we don't like Oahu. We love Oahu! Oahu is our favorite place to go driving in ... traffic, knowing you just had two bran muffins and a cup of coffee. We love that!"
Gilliom, however, admits that more than a little thought went into their decision.
"We were just trying to keep the coconut wireless going," he said. "Oahu is a really tough market, (and) we already have an audience on Kauai and the Big Island, and of course Maui."
Oahu residents finally get to see what the buzz is about tonight, when the Barefoot Natives perform at the Hawaiian Hut.
While this is the first time Kahaialii and Gilliom will perform on Oahu as the Barefoot Natives, it isn't the first time the two have played here together.
"We've already played Oahu many times before the CD came out," Kahaialii said. "And I always let audiences know that by the end of this year, everyone is going to know the name Eric Gilliom."
Local residents are already familiar with Kahaialii's work, which earned him a slew of Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in the '90s and a reputation as Hawaii's answer to the late Jimi Hendrix. But less is known about Gilliom, despite his two critically acclaimed albums and a successful stage and television career.
Yes, he's Amy Hanaialii Gilliom's brother and another grandson of Jennie "Napua" Woodd. He was also the first person with Hawaiian blood to graduate from the Goodman School of Performing Arts at DePaul University, and went on to roles in "Hoosiers," "Moonlighting," "My Sister Sam" and other projects throughout the '80s.
The '90s found Gilliom on Broadway, performing in more than 70 productions and even claiming the lead role in "Hamlet" at one point. He also fronted a band in Los Angeles that featured famed saxophone player Dave Koz, and released the solo effort "Into the Mystic" in 1992.
In 1997, Gilliom followed up with "Like Chow Fun." But before he could start promoting that album, Jamie Foxx hired him for "The Jamie Foxx Show" as a featured writer and performer.
"I just blew out of town," Gilliom recalled. "I was back in L.A. for 2-1/2 years working with him."
Joining his sister on stage during a mainland tour in 2004 introduced him to Kahaialii, and Gilliom moved back to Maui shortly thereafter, quickly landing a regular gig alongside Barry Flanagan on Maui and traveling with Kahaialii.
"I couldn't (have been) in a better position to up my game as a guitar player than playing with two of Hawaii's best," he said. "(I'd play) Thursday and Friday with Barry, and then go on the road with Willie."
By January of last year, Kahaialii and Gilliom knew they had tapped into something special. An agreement was made to record an album together.
"You could probably say that it's a start of a whole new beginning that we're doing," Kahaialii said. "It's breath-of-fresh-air-kine stuff, something new and different. People are enjoying it."
COURTESY THE BAREFOOT NATIVES
"We were just trying to keep the coconut wireless going."
JUST LOOKING at the cover of "Barefoot Natives" gives listeners a good idea of the duo's approach. Dressed in matching aloha shirts, the two stand side by side, gazing proudly off camera while Gilliom holds a guitar. Then you realize they're standing in the ocean, with water up to their okoles. Open the CD case, and another picture finds Kahaialii playing a lick on an electric guitar while standing in an outrigger canoe.
Remove the CD itself, and yet another image shows the pair paddling the same canoe with acoustic guitars! It's this tongue-in-cheek approach to their craft that allows them to challenge themselves creatively while maintaining a sense of levity.
"The battle is a losing battle when it comes to creativity with every artist here in Hawaii," said Kahaialii. "That's the only thing that's holding a lot of great artists here in Hawaii back. They're so afraid of offending, you know, that their creative juices sour. Then they end up being the 'woulda-coulda-shoulda' people, and when you let that (happen) to yourself, the only person you have to blame is you."
There is no lack of originality on "Barefoot Natives," although a number of covers are included. Even Hawaiian standards such as "Kuu Home O Kahaluu" and "Ahulili" take on a new sound, thanks to the pair's fearlessness in doing something different.
"We wanted to lift any kind of restrictions or pressure," Gilliom said. "('Barefoot Natives') is a feel-good album ... it's just complementary all the way around.
"The thing I personally enjoy about playing with Willie is that we just don't have any limitations, and we're not afraid to go anywhere. Brah, if (we) want to play a blues tune, (we'll) jam a blues tune. If we like throw down some Hawaiian tunes, then (we'll) play some Hawaiian tunes. He's always challenging me."
Listening to the album elicits comparisons to Hawaiian acts of years past, those who threw kupuna for a loop with a new sound and attitude toward the music.
Kahaialii believes there is justification in comparing the Barefoot Natives to Sunday Manoa or Sudden Rush, who redefined what it meant to be a Hawaiian artist in contemporary Hawaii.
"How we do it is the same approach that Sunday Manoa and Peter Moon did," he said. "It's not that you gotta give (listeners) what they want, you give them what you expect them to desire. You gotta train them."