Heels & Picks: Republik Music Fest rocks
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Kaka’ako Waterfront Park is one hell of a venue. Every time I go there, I catch my breath when I see the view as I walk over the crest of the hill towards the amphitheater where concerts are held.
The ocean is right there, waves rolling, peppered with surfers. The downward slope of the hill towards the stage is the perfect natural seating. And for some reason, every time I’m there a huge rainbow stretches over the Honolulu skyline at some point.
We have no shortage of breathtaking views in Hawaii, but as far as venues go, this one is something special.
BAMP Project hosted the Republik Music Festival 4 on Sunday. I’ve had a longstanding love for Republik Music Fest after my band, The Throwdowns, kicked off the very first festival in 2011. Every year, BAMP brings an interesting and exhilarating lineup to Honolulu, and this year did not disappoint.
Last year’s Republik Music Fest: Jamrock Edition featured Santigold, who brought her quirky pop-dub fusion that I find to be completely on-point. Year two featured G Love, Philly’s swaggy blues man who loves a cold beverage. Slightly Stoopid and The Dirty Heads have made appearances, and Steel Pulse has been a staple of the festival, appearing nearly every year. Hawaii cannot get enough Steel Pulse.
I attended this year’s festival with my gay boy bestie Ty Stroh and his boyfriend Wayne Rapoza. It only took us 25 minutes to decide whether Ty’s shirt got the thumbs up or not before we left his Waikiki apartment for Kakaako. That’s not bad in gay boy fashion time.
When we hit the festival, I ran into Captain Phil (aka BAMP’s Philip Pendleton), we had our hugs and high fives, caught up for a quick minute about my music and how the concert was shaping up, and then got back to our respective hustles. Turns out, the festival was turning out to be a great night, with 6,000 tickets pre-sold and an estimated 1,000 tickets sold at the door.
The night opened with local boy Makua Rothman, a big wave surfer who released his debut album, “Sound Wave,” with Mountain Apple Company in December. On this album of ukulele-driven pop and reggae, the polished production is an unexpected twist. When thinking of ukulele, one often would assume the production would be sparse and mellow. The slick pop factor is dialed up on Rothman’s album, and it really works. This is a testament to him and producer John “Feldy” Feldmann for making their vision into a sonically viable reality.
If Rothman handles big waves the same way he handles a small ukulele (and by all accounts, he does), this double-threat is in fine form. His performance was strong, clean and commanding. The Republik Music Festival usually kicks off with a local act and Rothman delivered the goods, entertaining early concertgoers as the sun made its way towards the sea.
Next up was Steel Pulse, the festival mainstays who return to rock our socks off nearly every year. This crew brings the heat when it comes to a stage show. It is high-energy, booty-shaking, non-stop rock star energy for the entire set.
I have no idea how they keep up that kind of energy for so long, but kudos to them for continually pulling it off, especially after over three decades of being a band. I also don’t have any idea how so many of the members can wear all white on stage and not trash their outfits during each show, but that’s another story.
Steel Pulse was purely entertaining, performing their hits and delivering their self-described “message of positivity for anyone who listens with their heart.” If you’ve somehow managed not to catch one of their performances, do yourself a favor and get your tickets early for their next trip to Hawaii.
Taking the show in a rock direction is perhaps not what we would have guessed Matisyahu would do if you have followed the trajectory of his career. Yet there we were with his set undeniably bringing the rock noise in the lineup. When Matisyahu performed at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in 2008, he was bearded, bespectacled and very squarely in the reggae/rap genre.
Fast-forward to 2010 when The Throwdowns went on an interisland tour with the star, and you could see the sonic landscape was changing for him. He brought a rock show, and he brought it big time. His backing band had become the Dub Trio (drummer Joe Tomino, bassist Stu Brooks and guitarist D.P. Holmes), the groove was heavier and Matisyahu was sporting a whole new angle as an artist.
For this year’s Republik Music Fest, Matisyahu was clean-shaven with short hair, sporting a baseball cap and tank top — much like his look during his last tour through Hawaii. There was stage diving, a gathering of fans on stage and the incredible musicianship we’ve come to expect from Matisyahu’s live show. As well as playing hits like “One Day,” he wove four songs from his newly released album, “Akeda,” into the mix, providing fans with a look at the freshest development in his sound.
Often fans like to put an artist in a box, mourning the days when, in the case of Matisyahu, he was a Hasidic reggae star and just that. After watching and listening to him morph to the power alternative pop and reggae-rap sound on 2012’s “Spark Seeker,” fans that would look to put him in a box should brace themselves for new sonic terrain with “Akeda.”
This is Matisyahu in a more raw, vulnerable and introspective state than we’ve ever seen him, though his power is not tarnished by allowing fans in. Produced by Stu Brooks, bassist of the Dub Trio, the songs on “Akeda” allow breathing room for the introspection.
Sonically and lyrically, the album meshes. Brooks handles the space deftly, never losing the anthemic quality within the scope of the more personal material. You can also hear the rock solid connection that Matisyahu and Dub Trio have with each other as bandmates and performers. No surprise, the Dub Trio themselves are beyond solid and Matisyahu’s live show with the DT has slayed crowds the last five years.
Any artist worth their salt tends to bend, grow and expand over time, and I think we all know Matisyahu is worth the price of admission.
Up next were headliners Rebelution, California’s reggae band that has kept Hawaii audiences hooked from the beginning. Ten years in, this group knows what works for them, and they do it incredibly well.
With smooth, clean vocals and catchy songs, you could feel the group branching out with material from their upcoming album. The guitar work is more intricate, and in some instances heavier, and they are playing with sonic landscapes that they haven’t explored before.
For this performance, Rebelution hit the stage with a horn section, a welcome addition to their sleek sound. Their new album, “Count Me In,” drops Tuesday, and the band is gearing up for a long summer tour of performing their hits and new material for fans across the country. From the number of people I saw in the crowd singing along to every word of Rebelution’s songs, it should be a great summer for the band.
I was, as always, impressed with the organization and layout of the venue. At one point I went from backstage with the Dub Trio, all the way up the hill and into the 21+ section to meet my friends. It took me all of two minutes to get up there, in a crowd of 7,000 people. Not bad, right?
And, because this is Heels & Picks, after all, let’s take a moment to talk about concert fashion. It seems you never see this style of fashion on the street. Honolulu knows how to get their Coachella on when it comes to festival concerts. Flower crowns were everywhere, as were those tribal shirts I can’t seem to figure out how to wear. High-waisted jean shorts were another component of the night’s unofficial uniform.
The guys, of course, were more local, all casual in tank tops and board shorts. Not too many men in Honolulu sport the indie-rock look; we have a ways to go before they catch up with us indie-rock ladies.
Me? I wore my knee-high Chuck Taylors because I didn’t want to roll down the hill in my heels. And my gay boy bestie Ty? I’m glad he took the time to pick out that loud plaid shirt, because I could find him in the crowd every time I lost him.
Until next year, Republik Music Festival.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.