It was getting close to midnight when the phenomenally talented, multi-award-winning Hawaiian musician walked in the door and picked up his guitar. He beckoned Mike’s dad close to the stage.
“We’re all islanders, and this song’s for you!” Willie told him. Then he sang Ireland’s beloved anthem, Danny Boy.
“My dad was so happy, I saw teardrops, and my mum totally broke down,” Mike remembered. “[Since then] we’ve had Irish people who say they came 6,000 miles to hear it sung better by Willie K than anyone they’ve ever seen in Ireland.”
Willie K puts on a dinner show like no other.
Photo: Robert Kayser
The depth and passion that Willie brings to the sweet lyrics of Danny Boy are the same he brings to every song he sings, whether it’s Nā Hala O Naue or Ave Maria. And that’s about the only thing that’s the same.
For the last two years, Willie K has been playing a weekly, sold-out dinner show at Mulligan’s. It’s not the kind of dinner show where you listen politely to the music in between bites of salad—it’s the kind of show where you forget all about the food because the music is so amazing.
“This is backyard style, an Irish lū‘au,” Willie said. “Both Irish and Hawaiians love to get together and eat and drink and play music and talk story.”
With Willie’s immense musical talent, he’s capable of playing anything that comes into his head. “It’s not easy to pull off a two-hour solo show, but management [i.e., Mike] allows me to do it the way I want,” he said.
With no set list, he plays the songs that appeal to him at that moment—maybe a Willie Nelson/Patsy Kline duet of Crazy (he does both voices); or a soaring Nessun Dorma Italian opera; or a poignant version of Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s Kamalani; or for Willie K fans, his own beautiful Waterfall.
He likes to keep it a family show, joking that he saves the crazy stuff for other venues. Many nights, his own family is in attendance: his lovely wife Debbie and their two daughters, Lycette (who dances hula) and baby Toni, and his many sisters and brothers as well.
The hilarious talk story is interwoven with Uncle Willie’s whirlwind tour of Hawaiian music past-to-present—including romantic melodies from the beaches of Waikīkī and vignettes like the introduction of the steel guitar (“a guy drops his comb, it hits the ‘ukulele strings, and he says ‘wow!’”). His fingers fly across the instruments, creating an entire rhythm section with his fast-moving hands.
“Any first-timers tonight?” he asked the crowd filling the dining room and moonlit terrace. “Okay, just so you know, there are three things we don’t do here: Tiny Bubbles, Blue Hawai‘i and Hawaiian Wedding Song.” (He isn’t kidding, either.)
Along with the first-timers in the crowd is a good mix of Maui residents and return visitors who come back to see Willie year after year.
“Willie is one of the reasons we’re still in business!” said Mike. “I’m honored to have him play here at Mulligan’s. It’s all about the culture, and to have our cultures cross over is even more special.”
With the show selling out every week, they’ve added a Thursday performance with Willie’s band. That’s in addition to his numerous other projects, which include a regular Tuesday night gig at Casanova, March 13 and 14 shows at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center with his sizzling trio Lima Wela, three different CDs coming out, a summer blues festival in the works—even ‘ukulele lessons from Uncle Willie the first Sunday of every month at Mulligan’s.
And then, of course, there’s St. Patrick’s Day 2010. Nine years after he first sang it at Mulligan’s, Willie K reprised Danny Boy for his fans—Irish, Hawaiian and otherwise.
His only worry: “What speakers am I going to blow this year?” he laughed. Last year, he blew every one—it’s just that kind of show.