Honokaa to Hilo
Waimea to Honokaa is about a 25-minute drive on the two-lane Hawaii Belt Road. From 1873 to 1994, Honokaa’s economy was based primarily on the sugar production of the Hāmākua Sugar Company. Today, the historic downtown district on Māmane Street is host to three live music spots.
By far the biggest music venue in town is the Honokaa People’s Theatre (45-3574 Mamane St.) Built in 1930, the 525-seat cinema is now run by Dr. Tawn Keeney who shows current films, and rents it for a variety of local and top-name acts that tour the State. Most recently, classic rock fans have traveled from all parts of the island to catch artists like Judy Collins, Dave Mason, and Edgar Winter.
Next door to the theatre is Cafe Il Mondo, a beautifully designed Italian restaurant with a dedicated small stage for music. There is no entertainment schedule listed on their website, but the live music usually features the owner on acoustic guitar backed by a local sax player.
Further down the street, you’ll find the Last Call Saloon (45-3490 Mamane Street). The night to catch live music is Wednesdays when they feature open-mic. Mostly locals sign up, and you can catch a variety of players and singers while enjoying pizza and cold beer.
If it’s Sunday, you’ll want to stop by the Hamakua Harvest Farmers Market (44-2600 Mamalahoa Hwy., intersection Mamane St.). Usually by 10 AM, there’s a tent with performers like Brad Bordessa, James Lowe, or Dave Padilla playing.
Back to the main Highway 19. Turn left heading toward Hilo, it’s a 30-minute drive to Pāpa’aloa. This is tricky, but you want to watch for a left turn when you see a pick-up truck with a banner that says “Papaaloa Country Store and Cafe.” That if it’s daytime and if the truck is parked by the side of the highway. I know…
The Papaaloa Country Store and Cafe is located at 35-2032 Old Mamalahoa Highway. Live music is played in the Cafe, which is to the right of the grocery store. The Cafe offers music three to four nights per week, and it’s mostly talent that you find at other local venue.s Bluesman Richard Johnston plays there on a monthly basis, and it’s worth catching his show. In 2001 he won the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge and its Albert King Award for the most promising blues guitarist.
The next stop on our Big Island Music Tour is Hilo, about 35 minutes south of Pāpa’aloa and home to the University of Hawaii (Hilo),as well as the annual Merrie Monarch Festival.
Downtown Hilo is your best option for live music. The Hilo Town Tavern (168 Keawe St.) features the most music with a decent stage and acoustics. Open-mic nights are Mondays and a popular fav with the locals is The Ing Crowd and Professor T & The East Side Shredders.
You can also find entertainment at Pineapples Restaurant (332 Keawe St.), the Hilo Burger Joint (776 Kilauea Ave.), and Cafe Pesto (308 Kamehameha Ave #101). All of these Hilo venues are within walking distance of each other. When strolling through town, check the public bulletin boards and walls for posters showing smaller venues with live music.
Also downtown is the Palace Theatre (38 Haili St.). Like the People’s Theatre in Honokaa, it shows movies with the occasional live concert. Saxman Randy Skaggs has a monthly show called “Jazz Night At The Palace Theatre,” which features his band Soul on a Roll.
Slightly off the beaten path, but still downtown is KukuAu Studio (43 Kukuau St.). Curator and music instructor Bub Pratt offers music lessons, Monday Night Jazz Jams, Poetry Slams, and the occasional concert. It’s a casual artsy setting with theater seating, constructed from a former warehouse.
The finest music venue in Hilo is the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center (200 W. Kāwili St.). The music genres vary here, and you can see a classical performance as well as a rock concert within weeks of each other. The Performing Arts Center has been home to annual Frank Zappa tribute concerts for the past five years, and last year the rock guitarist’s son Dweezil joined the UH Hilo Jazz Orchestra for a two-hour show.
Be sure to read parts One and Two of our Guide to the Big Island’s Music Scene.