KAILUA-KONA — Bill Kirchen has been playing music since the 1960s, and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. In fact, he is only gearing up for the next big adventure in his career.
“No moss is growing on me,” Kirchen said last week, before leaving the comfort of his home in Texas to come to Hawaii.
Kirchen is touring Hawaii this week for the first time in his decades-long career as a musician. The guitarist has played all of the lower 48 states on the mainland, Japan, Palestine, Israel and all over Europe, but these islands in the Pacific Ocean have alluded him until now.
Kirchen arrives on the Big Island this weekend, fresh from concerts on Maui and Oahu, for two performances on the island. He plays at 7 p.m. Saturday at Honokaa People’s Theatre and at 7 p.m. Sunday at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar in downtown Kailua-Kona.
Known as “The Titan of the Telecaster” for his prowess on the Fender Telecaster guitar, Kirchen is best known as one of the original members of the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The band’s song “Hot Rod Lincoln” reached the top 10 on the Billboard record chart in 1971.
Kirchen started his life as a famous guitarist when he was a teenager in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was involved in the folk music scene. It was just the beginning of his musical journey.
“I hitchhiked to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965, when I was a kid, 16 years old, and I heard all the great blues and folk singers,” Kirchen said. “I saw Bob Dylan, and I saw Bob Dylan go electric the second year in 1965, and it was an era and a time just an explosion of great music, a lot of which was guitar. I started on the banjo, and quickly switched to guitar, and switched from acoustic eventually to electric.
“It was quite the time, and there was a lot of experimentation and a lot of traditional music happening at the same time, and I got caught up in it and never looked back.”
Since those days looking up at Bob Dylan from the pit, Kirchen has performed on stage with famous musicians such as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Gene Vincent, Link Wray and Doug Sahm.
“He’s a force of nature,” Kirchen said of working with Costello. “If you want something to do, ask a busy person, and Elvis always has got something cooking and something interesting going.”
For his Big Island shows, Kirchen will reach into his long bag of songs from his Commander Cody days, as well as his solo work, to create a show never before seen in Hawaii. Backing up Kirchen on stage will be Tim Eschliman on bass and Steve Barbuto, also a former Commander Cody member, on drums and percussion.
“I have a set list, but it’s loose. We don’t mind freewheeling it,” Kirchen said. “It’s going be fun. I wrote a song for Commander Cody called ‘(I Ain’t Never Had) Too Much Fun,’ and that is words to live by right there.”
And having fun is what makes Kirchen still play after decades on the stage. When he’s performing music, he’s transported back to a simpler time in life, and he wants to take his audiences to that place, too.
“I love it, that’s the best I can describe it,” Kirchen said, “I’ve always loved it. I loved music as a little kid, as soon as I could sing, and dance along. As musicians, we get to engage in creative play. When I do a concert, I don’t have to play a specific part that somebody told me or somebody wrote. I get to improvise.
“And that’s just what a kid does when he goes out to play.”
Info: Tickets to Bill Kirchen at Honokaa People’s Theatre on Saturday are $55/$40, and tickets to his performance at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar on Sunday are $40. Both shows begin at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at bluesbearhawaii.com.