By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
ohn F. Leonard had a vision.
In the early 1990s, the longtime Honolulu radio executive and concert promoter acquired a pair of financially struggling Hilo radio stations, KPUA-AM and KWXX-FM. Looking for a way to sear the brand of the FM station into the local consciousness, he came up with a free downtown Hilo block party with multiple outdoor stages of live music by the bands featured on the station’s airwaves.
Leonard was only 55 when he died of a heart attack on Dec. 2, 1996, but under the leadership of his son, Chris, the KWXX Ho‘olaule‘a has grown exponentially, with the 20th annual event rocking the downtown streets Saturday from 5-10:30 p.m.
More than 10,000 people are expected to enjoy the family-friendly, alcohol- and drug-free funfest.
“I think he envisioned this as an event that would last, but I don’t think anyone could have envisioned that it would grow as large as this,” Chris Leonard said. “This is the 17th event that we’ve done since he passed away and obviously, it’s grown into something that’s exceeded anything that we expected.”
Stages are on Kamehameha Avenue at the corners of Haili and Kalakaua streets, the Mo‘oheau Park Bandstand, and according to Leonard, the Palace Theater stage has been added this year, as well.
“We’d been discussing the Palace as a possible option for the last couple of years, and with this year being the 20th, this is the right time to do it,” he said.
Many acts who’ve played the event in the past are returning, including ‘Ekolu, Anuhea, Mana‘o Company, Sudden Rush, Ryan Hiraoka and Darlene Ahuna. Making its Ho‘olaule‘a debut this year is The Green, whose new album, “HAWAI‘I ’13,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard reggae chart.
“Obviously, they’ve had a good deal of success nationally over the last couple of years, so it’s nice to have them in the lineup,” Leonard said.
JP Kennedy, guitarist and vocalist in the band, said they’re excited about playing for the Hilo crowd.
“We’ve been tryin’ to make it there the past few years but we’ve been on tour the past couple of years, so we had to pass on it,” he said. “We know about the festival and the size of it. The reputation is huge. We’re glad to be home and with this new album coming out, this is just perfect. It’s gonna be great.”
Kennedy, the nephew of the Mana‘o Company’s Danny Kennedy, is also excited about the album, the band’s third. It was produced and engineered by Danny Kalb, who’s worked with Jack Johnson, Ben Harper and Beck. Kalb’s involvement marks the first time the band has hired an outside producer.
“It was brought up by our management and label to take a step to the next level,” Kennedy said. “We’ve worked with Danny on some songs. He actually mixed a couple of songs on our ‘Ways and Means’ album, so we were comfortable with his work. We wanted to keep the formula the same, so there was some nervousness, but when we got in there it was awesome. He took our ideas and made them sound cleaner and more advanced.”
On the auspicious chart debut, Kennedy said: “That validates what we’ve been searching for since we were kids. It’s good to see hard work paying off and being valued by the public.”
Downtown parking lot closures begin at 5 p.m. today, and street closures begin at 5 a.m. Saturday to accommodate stage building and event preparation, including food and craft booths. There will be free parking at the county’s Aupuni Center and Hilo Civic Auditorium with free shuttles to and from the event running between 4-11 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re really excited that we’ve made it to our 20th annual event,” Leonard said. “It’s a heck of an accomplishment. I’m proud that the event has grown into a signature event, not only for KWXX, but a signature event for our community. I’m proud of our staff, who have worked hard and large as they have and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to a lot of businesses in the community, and to the county, who have been supportive over the years and helped to make this happen.”
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.