Concert Review: Makana’s “Sunset Tour” in Seattle

Photo By Jeff Mallin (Live at Hawai’i Theatre)

Renowned slack key guitarist Makana made Seattle the final stop on what was billed as “The Sunset Tour.” Not that he’s planning on sailing off into one of Hawaii’s glorious sunsets for good; he just plans to take a much needed break from the road, joking during the show that all the constant touring had deprived him of having much of a private life.

Makana performed in the smaller of Benaroya Hall’s two performing spaces, the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, which gave the show a more intimate feel. For those who hadn’t seen him before, he provided a quick overview of what “slack key guitar” means; very simply, it’s playing the guitar in a variety of open tunings. Meaning more time was spent in between songs changing those tunings, something Makana was quick to joke about; “And now…20 minutes of tuning!” he said after the first number, as he retuned his guitar for the next piece.

Slack key guitar playing produces a rich and resonant sound, and players also use their fingers, not a pick. Makana’s fingers provided the most kinetic activity of the evening, moving rapidly with incredible skill, at times aurally creating a sense of a rippling waterfall. Another number, described by him as “what a sunset sounds like,” alternated between fast bursts of sound and gentle playing, bringing to mind the kind of vivid sunset where red and orange light dramatically fills the sky, slowly turning a deeper and deeper blue as the sun sinks.

Most of the numbers were instrumental. Makana shared many stories between songs, such as how a treasured guitar he’d has since age 13 was stolen, and then found its way back to him, via Craigslist. There were moments of seriousness, as when he opened his second set by showing a video for his song “Mourning Armageddon,” inspired by the events of January 13, 2018, when a false missile alert was issued in Hawaii. Filmed in an actual bunker in Russia, the song contemplates the insanity of man-made destruction in somber fashion. But there were moments of levity too, as when Makana mischievously introduced the song “Nectarine” by saying “I wrote this to get laid” (references to sweet, juicy fruit always works well in songs about romance and lust).

“Slack key was a music that was dying in the 1950s and 1960s,” Makana observed at one point. Now, thanks to him as well as other musicians, it’s come back to life, and a style that developed in the late 19th century continues to grow. In Makana’s case, he adds to the legacy by bringing in themes about the wonders of nature, and self-empowerment (as one of his lyrics put it, “What you are/is all you need”). Makana also informed the audience that while he’s taking a break from touring, he now has relatives living in Seattle, so we could expect to see him from time to time. The cheers and applause that followed made it clear that in the Pacific Northwest, Makana’s welcome back at any time.