Entertaining audiences since he was 10, Willie K (nee Willie Kahaiali'i) has a more eclectic auditory appetite. While he loves and expertly performs his native slack-key guitar style, his interests and influences are a broad menu of musical genres: jazz, R&B, hard rock, reggae, easy listening, blues and even flamenco. That and his being a guitar virtuoso (he's been called the "Hawaiian Hendrix") explain why he's been able to open for and perform with a variety of performers who run the gamut of popular music: B.B. King, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Prince, George Benson, Carlos Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Mick Fleetwood and Jimmy Buffett.
If you want to find Willie K in his native habitat, you need only to visit Maui on any given Monday. There he has a longstanding gig at Hapa's Club in Kihei on the island. His hard rock and reggae sides are documented on his Live at Hapa's double-CD, showcasing his fiery guitar playing and soaring vocals. Gifted with a three-octave voice, Willie K vocals are reminiscent of Aaron Tippin's sweet, wispy power in the upper range.
The son of Manu Kahaiali'i, a respected Hawaiian musician, Willie K started performing with his brothers as a child. By the time he graduated from high school, he was playing in as many as eight bands covering country and western, R&B, salsa, rock and Hawaiian. He made the voyage across the waters to California to advance his career, but eventually returned to the calm and beauty of the islands after one too many earthquakes.
Settling in, he has become a major force on the Hawaiian music scene as a writer, musician and producer. His first three albums, starting in 1990, won Na Hoku Hanohano awards (the Hawaiian equivalent of Grammys). He's taken kudos for Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Producer of the Year.
He formed a wildly popular duo with Amy Gilliom, where they not only sang, but also hammed it up with boy/girl confrontations which they say was just part of the act. They mutually agreed to focus on their respective solo careers after a five-year stint as a duet.
That focus has brought Willie K back to a renewed appreciation and advocacy of the traditional style he grew up with. He states, "I'm trying to make everybody realize that we need to hear more and play more traditional Hawaiian music."
Nonetheless, his Tucson debut will likely be more an entertaining musical travelogue of the many genres in his world, rather than a strict dissertation on Hawaii styles. Known for his wit and sensitivity to his audience, Willie K could be the surprise not-to-be-missed show of the season.