Heels & Picks: Ron & Thunderstorm Artis
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
The first time I saw Ron & Thunderstorm Artis, they had taken to the stage right after my band at Honolulu Night Market. This was last summer for the August Night Market, and the air was thick and humid. I was drenched in sweat from my band’s set – we play fairly high-energy rock and tend to leave a lot of ourselves out on the stage.
But our way of giving our all to the audience is more stylized, more calculated. We have a look and a vibe that we perpetuate, and we perform in a way that lets the audience in only as far as the vision we create will allow.
When Ron and Thunderstorm Artis took to the stage, it was a different kind of energy that was exuding from the two brothers – one that leaves it ALL on the stage, inviting the crowd into their palpable enthusiasm for music.
The story of the Artis brothers begins – and continues – with family. Two of 11 siblings, they grew up in an artistic family where visual art and music were encouraged and developed. Their father, Ron Artis, was a visual artist. I’ve seen this before: in large families who have to work hard to make things come together, there is often a lot of love, and artistic activities are a means to bond and pass the time.
Ron and Thunderstorm spent much of their youth in Kailua, Oahu’s beautiful east side beach town. Their father painted his first mural in Kailua on the wall of Pali Lanes Bowling Alley. But with the rising costs of living in Kailua, by 2002 the Artis family needed to find a new spot to raise the children. With 10 kids and three dogs, finding a new place was challenging.
The family bounced around from Kahalu to Kahuku, finally settling in Haleiwa in 2003. As Ron Artis II says, “by the time we arrived in Haleiwa, we were homeless. We had two big trucks.”
The family eventually found a new space, which would ultimately become the Ron Artis Gallery/Studio. Though times were difficult, Ron Artis II says that never spilled over to family life.
“I had learned a lot from my parents in my life, but through this journey I learned something really special,” Artis said. “No matter how hard it felt to them, they never once blamed us. We never once felt, unsafe, unloved or lost. Instead we felt like it was and adventure the whole time.”
Artis says he looked to his father as his mentor and would write and record songs for his father to listen to. He was keenly aware of his father’s reactions. “I would write songs and put them on his computer before he woke up in the morning, so that when he sat to check the news, he’d see his ‘QuickTime player’ opened to a song. I’d be in the other room listening to see if he liked it. If it made it past 20 seconds, it was ok. If it stopped at 10 seconds, then I had some work to do. I really loved that I was home-schooled and that I had so much time to pursue music.”
At the Ron Artis Gallery/Studio, neighboring stores Rainbow Bridge Gift Shop and Surf N Sea would let the family set up gear and perform outside of their locations. Artis says he’s grateful and that they let them do these performances almost every day.
This street performing background is exactly what gives Ron and Thunderstorm Artis their “put it all out there” energy onstage. It’s a knowing edge of how to connect to people in the most authentic of ways and a desire to truly do that with their music.
Now, after their 10-year run at the Gallery has ended, Ron & Thunderstorm Artis have been carving out a name for themselves, performing on Oahu at events. The brothers are set to release their debut album “What Music Means to Me” and have an album release party this week. The album launch will be held at an undisclosed location, only revealed to ticket holders upon purchase.
Ron Artis II has a rich, full voice with a strong range. The emotional presence is apparent in his delivery, which is something that is hard to teach. You just need to have it, or work hard to develop it. The production is clean and the balance between voice and guitar is solid.
The songs have a Marvin Gaye quality to them, but unlike Gaye the depth of emotion comes not from a sexual energy – it’s a deep belief in people and love that drive these songs. It’s more in tune with Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” than “Sexual Healing.”
It is extremely easy to fall into sounding trite and holier than though when broaching subjects like poverty and suffering people. Artis’ delivery is so genuine that you don’t question the authenticity.
By the time the third song on the album hits, “A Family Like Mine”, the brothers are cooking with gas. They layer lovely harmonies over lines about treating your mother with love and looking your father in the eye, with a strong funk acoustic guitar providing the support. By the time the bridge hits, Thunderstorm Artis launches into a rapid-fire rap that solidifies his chops – his flow is brassy, bold and fast.
Those wanting to purchase the album can head over to ronartisII.com and tickets to Saturday’s performance will be available until the end of Wednesday September 30th, also on the website.
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.