The Blue Hawaiians
Live At The Lava Lounge






One of Exotica's most electric live performers, The Blue Hawaiians were in the business even before the resurrection of neo-Exotica. Their first live album Live At The Lava Lounge gives insight into the slow but steady revival of the tiki temples at the West Coast, an Americana-related architecture and lifestyle. Allowing the listener to experience the night of April 16th, 1995 at the Lava Lounge in Hollywood, this release is a modern gemstone.


The huge amount of 17 renditions made it on the album, all of them skillfully interpreted by bandleader, singer and bassist Mark Fontana, guitarist Mark Sproull, drummer and Ambient (!) musician maxwellvision and steel guitarist Bron Tieman. Gary Brandin is missing, but this is no surprise, given the date when this live performance was held, for Brandin joined the band a few years later. The Blue Hawaiians and the Lava Lounge started their successful partnership in 1994 already, and as the legend goes, one Quentin Tarantino started to become a fan around that time.


This partnership of a venue owner with a band incidentally reminds me of both Martin Denny's engagement in the Shell Bar at the Hawaiian Village Hotel in Oahu and The Beachcomber Trio's long-lasting music-related contributions to the Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio, and it is only recently that a few of the trio’s 1965 skits have been gathered by Exotica historian Jeff Chenault and released as Live From Kahiki, 1965. The reason I'm drawing this comparison is due to the historic dimensions. Someday, Live At The Lava Lounge will be hailed as an important pre-neo-Exotica release that lets Exotica fans take a glimpse about the increasing awareness of Surf Rock, Rockabilly and related subgenres of Exotica. But until then, let's check out the magic of some enchanted evening at the Lava Lounge.

"Ladies and gentlemen, aloha and welcome to the Lava Lounge!" With these short introductory words of Fontana, the band kicks off their set with a rendition of Kenneth Johnson's The Wipe Out. The Dark drums together with the warped twangs of Tieman's steel guitar are the main attractions of this instrumental. However, not everything is dark, for the guitar strings shimmer golden when they are played in higher regions, resulting in a great interplay between upbeat joy and dark melancholia … exactly the mixture The Blue Hawaiians are known for.


Pipeline / Endless Sleep is inspired by the version of The Chantays. An exquisite mystique marks the beginning, with frantic drum interludes and dark Brazilian-flavored meandering guitar sounds constantly interacting. Once the deep pulses of the bass guitar arrive, the refreshingly gloomy ambience turns into a proper, but no less gloomy track with sunset-evoking strings, desperado melodies and Fontana's lamenting interpretation of the well-known lyrics about losing that certain girl and the resulting string of lonely nights. There's no wrath in his voice, only consternation. However, the increasing tempo, the acidness of the guitars plus their nastily bubbling staccato near the end are proof enough that this is one of the dark Exotica pieces kindled by camouflaged anger.


Up next is Surfin' Tragedy, a track originally written by Robert Hafner but put into a new context by the band. Dedicated to surfer Bob Simmons who died in 1954, this song is unexpectedly bright with liquid steel guitar accentuations and warm electric guitar licks. The arrangement is very repetitive, and the motif is repeated three times after its introduction, but this is not meant as a criticism, for the crystalline glint of the song is entirely inviting. 

While Naomi Ford's and Lee Hazelwood's Country ditty A Cheat gets a proper Exotica treatment with spectral steel guitars, the gorgeously laid back dizziness of their sustain and the terrific interplay of the strings with the gently howling reverberations in the background, Latin'ia is an enormously mellow Surf Rock cut with vivid bongos and the sizzling-hot euphony of the guitars. It's by far my most favorite tune of the whole set… but a close second place is reserved for Jerry Lordan's iconic Apache. The silky atmosphere, the crisp shakers and the almost military march-like intersections make this a terrific interpretation that remains true to the rustic original, with only slight enhancements and changes due to the different pool of instruments and a few careful improvisations. Top notch!


Red Top moves into glaring 6/8 Rockabilly territory with convivial screams of the track title and an upbeat atmosphere which serves as a great contrast to the darkness. However, the band is in great shape yet again when the tempo is further increased on Tom Wait's Jockey Full Of Bourbon, and a slight increase in sneakiness is perceptible as the intensity of the guitar strings grows and the famous lyrics suggest the worst. Another Lee Hazelwood track, the mighty positive Baja, follows, and it merges once again the sundown-strived atmosphere with nocturnal guitar textures and blithesome melodies. Fontana literally lets the lyrics about going South erupt out of his throat, and this punchiness works flawlessly in the melodious context.

Close to my heart is the band's take on Duke Ellington's Caravan, and it is surprising how its Oriental flavor increases due to anything else but the cheeky guitar strings. The various bridges, however, bring back the Surf Rock flavor. A real feast is maxwellvision's long energetic drum solo whose pumping plasticity is almost belly-crushing; a welcome addition that strays far off the usual paths of Caravan, making this a version to remember. With almost six minutes of runtime, it is at the same time one of the longest rides. The remaining songs of the set vary in style, but – surprisingly – tend to the happier side.


Bruce Welch's Theme For Young Lovers is a shiny vignette of positive thinking, with coruscating guitar layers and only the slightest traces of melancholia, while Jet Harris' Jet Black delivers a dose of coolness, carelessness and craziness with darkly twanged guitars and staccato drum stabs. Soul Surfer by John Sudetta is the clear-cut Surf Rock anthem of the live set with a great coolness factor but decidedly warm pulses and a general friendliness caused by the mellow team play of the guitarists, a team play that turns purposefully hyper-hectic on the most frantic song, Jack The Ripper, with an increasing nervousness and cacophony. The unexpectedly colorful three-note guitar chords that rise occasionally are all the more towering in the given context.


Slave Girl is the one and only song with an utterly dreamy and at times Space Age-evoking atmosphere that is caused and nurtured by Tieman's skilled use of his steel guitar. The phantasmagoric ambience which launches the song is definitely among the dreamiest Exotica introductory sections I've ever heard, similar in scope of The Vanduras' closing track Levitaré off their dark Exotica opus In The Dark, released in 2002 and featuring Gary Brandin with his son Geoffrey. Once the mood is established on Slave Girl, the steel guitar is played in the highest possible regions, resembling a theremin on dope.


Jim Messina's and Glen Frey's The Jester presents for the last time the catchy mélange of of illuminated darkness with frenzied drums, quick but pompously down-spiraling guitar melodies and redly glimmering chords. The final track Dick Tracy is a high-energy, tremendously thick Rock tune with shedloads of acidy guitar riffs, a fitting spy theme atmosphere and many layers of screeching strings and twangs. With these convoluted structures and counteracting melodies, The Blue Hawaiians call it a night.

Live performances are always energetic and eclectic, even more so in the Rock and Surf genre. This 1995 performance full of renditions and interpretations of classic Rock and related material remains to this day a very strong indicator of the band's specific focus on embedding the dark tiki elements with brighter Exotica structures, which are altogether encapsulated by Rock layers. Only when hand-made Exotica music resurfaced in Hawaii and Europe thanks to Don Tiki and the Euroboys respectively did The Blue Hawaiians start to interweave mellower, more melodious structures into their unique compositions. The seeds of this, however, are already planted in their live album. Their version of Slave Girl starts with very dreamy steel guitar washes, and even the darker atmosphere on Pipeline / Endless Sleep for instance is always loaded with what I call golden shimmers, meaning that melodies or droplets of this kind inherit sunny particles and good-natured figments that merge perfectly with the dark side of the band.


In the end, each of their dark tracks contains a brighter side, the pendulum does swing back and forth all the time so that the band never gives in to the rough force of gloominess. Live At The Lava Lounge is a splendid live album, and definitely Exotica's most dynamic live set ever released. The crowd is up for the night, the venue is fantastic and the band knows how to treat the audience. Quality and quantity merge, and while all of the renditions are skillfully adapted and twisted by the band, one or two unique compositions wouldn't have hurt, I guess. Since most of the material is hardly ever heard in the context of Exotica, I won't complain at all and recommend the album wholeheartedly.


Exotica Review 091: The Blue Hawaiians – Live At The Lava Lounge (1995). Originally published on Jul. 7, 2012 at