Spirit of Aloha: Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom & Willie K
at the Birchmere,
Alexandria, Virginia
(3 October 2004)

There has been an endless stream of class acts appearing at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. over the years. This music hall has seen the best in many genres gracing its stage and rarely has a performance there disappointed. But even by Birchmere standards, the Spirit of Aloha show was exceptional.

A 10-minute stirring introduction by the six hula dancers and four chanters of the Washington-based Halau Ho'omau I Ka Wai Ola O Hawai'i set the scene. And then Eric Gilliom took the stage.

Perhaps best known for his work with Hapa, this talented actor and singer-songwriter could have filled the evening with his intriguing guitar playing, powerful vocals, offbeat humor and dynamic stage presence alone.

His mission? To make you so homesick you gotta go home! Of course, home is Hawaii. Mission accomplished! From the opening strumming on a Brothers Cazimero song, full of textures and drive, he never let up. His songs, filled to the brim with the spirit of the Islands, tapped into a longing in the many exiles (as well as those who simply appreciate fine music) in the audience.

But it is not just his music which captures the listener. He is a superb showman with entertaining stories, a tremendous sense of timing and great delivery. After an absorbing and amusing introduction to his own composition, "O Tahiti," he started the song while being recorded on video-cam. Spontaneously, Gilliom entered an elaborate dance, a virtual duet, with my cinematographer.

Even changing guitars from his 12-string to a 6-string tuned slack-key style took on Chaplinesque dimensions. He then ended his segment of the show with "Aloha No Molokai," for which he was joined by his sister Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom in an intricate duet involving harmonies, call-and-response and more: two voices beautifully blending in a tribute to their grandmother, the late Jennie Napua Woodd.

The blending of voices, fascinating instrumental work, wild humor and total spectacle continued in the second half of the show when Amy returned along with singer and guitarist Willie K, accompanied by bassist Jack Ofoia and guitarist Chino Montero and with hula dancer Jackie Booth.

This quartet ran through some of the best known songs (and more) of Amy and Willie K (the Sonny and Cher of Hawaii, according to Amy). This is very backyard, she announced, and it was. No putting on airs, no separation between audience and musicians -- just four people who enjoy playing together and sharing what they do with anyone who happens to be around.

They split the evening democratically, alternating lead vocals: Amy started with "Aloha No Kalahaua," Willie followed up with "Molokai Woman," Amy continued with "Hanaiali'i Nui La Ea" and so on; top songs from their many duo and solo albums. But while one took the limelight, the other subtly added extra depth with sympathetic harmonies. And where more vocal power was needed, both Ofoia and Montero were ever ready to add their voices.

Willie summed up their stage relationship: he's the goofy one, she's the glamour. But it is far from that simple. His version of "Ka'u Elemakule," a great song for learning simple Hawaiian, leading into "Pipi Kiwi Nui," had the audience in fits. He spared no punches with the humor, both verbal and visual. Her version of "Autumn Leaves" was silky and sultry -- as she said, if there were a piano present, she would have draped herself across it as she sang.

He demands attention as a dynamic, soulful singer (and not too bad a guitarist, either). She has a way of incorporating humor at the right moments. Together, they switch roles with great timing. They allow the show to change focus easily and naturally from one to the other and from laughter to song. Amy and Willie on stage are true entertainers with pure Hawaiian style. This is the spirit of aloha at its best, making even haole homesick.

by Jamie O'Brien

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[ visit Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom online ]

[ visit Willie K online ]

[ visit Eric Gilliom online ]