Encore Tongo Hiti! Some people will always remember their first day of college. Perhaps others will remember the day they finally got their driver’s license. For me, I’ll always remember my first visit to the infamous Trader Vic’s. This tiki retreat is located on the lowest level of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Atlanta and from the moment I walked through the heavy wooden doors, I knew I’d never be the same.
I’d received a message from my friend Ange Alex at The Backstage Beat asking if I’d like to cover the Tongo Hiti show on Saturday night at the aforementioned Trader Vic’s. My male companion and I had recently decided that if we couldn’t get to the islands, we’d at least get the feel of the islands. Enthusiastically, I agreed to cover the show!
As evening fell on Saturday night, my friend and I dressed for the occasion with his look completed by a beachcomber hat and mine with a tropical red flower placed behind my ear. Even the sudden onslaught of rain couldn’t put a damper on the evening! We made our way through the downpour and soon found ourselves at the cozy tropical escape nestled in the middle of our bustling city. As we entered Trader Vic’s, we were met with music that summoned thoughts of palm trees, white sandy beaches, and delicious drinks with umbrellas in them.
Tongo Hiti is led by Big Mike Geier who is also known for his Elvis Royale show. (as previously reviewed by yours truly!) Backing Big Mike is guitarist RL Martin and Tim DeLaney on bass. Percussions (including a steel drum that really gave the music an island flavor!) were delivered by Sam Owens and the ivories were tickled by Kris Dale.
Over the course of the four-hour show, Big Mike and his band played tiki tunes like House of Bamboo and Hukalau. They also played more contemporary songs like Copacabana, More Than a Feeling, Stone In Love, Brandy, and the theme from Hawaii Five-O. In an entertaining twist, Big Mike countered a heckling fan who kept requesting classic rock (Freebird, anyone? Lol…) with, “Here’s one you probably won’t like either!” On that note, Tongo Hiti launched into the classic Abba tune, Dancing Queen. During an instrumental section of the song, Big Mike motioned to his percussionist to take over for him. In one fluid motion, Big Mike had the heckler on the dance floor and was twirling around with the man he called Mr. Clean. I can’t be certain, but I believe at that moment, the man smiled and was won over.
As the band stopped for a break, Chaka Boom of the Dames Aflame conducted a hula lesson on the dance floor. There were men and women, both young and old (and even a few pirates!) that learned to “cast the net, stir the pot, and let the waves come in.”
As the band took to the stage once more, they were joined by a new entertainer. Tongo Hiti began playing the hard rocking TnT by AC/DC and to everyone’s shock and pure enjoyment, the 9 year old girl on stage belted out the lyrics like a trained professional. As little Kat Lea sang and gripped the microphone, I glanced around and saw the same look on everyone’s face…wide eyes and huge smiles. I even heard a couple of, “Holy s*#&! That little girl rocks!” As she finished the song, the room erupted with applause and cheers for the mini-rocker. A chant began for another song and the adorable girl sang an original piece that she wrote. The tune was called Mean Mr. Pickle and she sang of how mean he was, but he was so good to eat. I later learned that Kat Lea is taking guitar lessons from RL Martin. I have no doubt that she’ll rock another stage at some point in her life.
As the crowd grew, the dance floor filled with patrons eager to shake their figurative (and in some cases, literal!) grass skirts! The band played for another hour and flowed from tiki traditional tunes to disco favorites from decades ago. Each song ended with cheers and loud exclamations of appreciation. (I was guilty of belting out a loud “Wooooooo!” several times…lol) Toward the end of the set, my companion was approached by Chaka Boom. It seems that he was selected as the guest of honor for the Monkey Zuma ritual!
A chair was brought to the center of the dance floor and the band began playing a slow, almost seductive tune. The Dames Aflame dancers led my friend to the chair. Behind them, a tall man adorned with a large headdress stood vigilant, almost as though he were the tribal chief. The beautiful dancers offered my friend a large conch shell filled with a rum drink that the original Trader Vic (Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr) would’ve been quite pleased with. Seemingly out of nowhere, Monkey Zuma appeared and joined the Dames Aflame in a ritual dance. Monkey Zuma proceeded to stuff my friend’s mouth full of bananas as she twirled and whirled around him. He sipped his libation and enjoyed the attention that the dancers showered him with. Soon, the ritual was over and he was left with a smile that stretched from ear to ear and a tasty drink that I happily shared with him.
During the next break, my friend took my camera and exclaimed, “Hey Big Mike…how ‘bout a picture for The Backstage Beat?” With a killer grin, Big Mike obliged and posed for a picture with me. After viewing the first shot, I commented that I was so much shorter than both men. Laughing, they agreed that I was “kind of a shrimp.”
The band began playing their final set and the crowd happily sang along to favorites like Werewolves of London (incidentally, lyrics were rearranged to “I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a pina colada at Trader Vic’s!”) and Under Pressure. (It should be noted that most of the crowd began chanting “ice ice baby” before Big Mike began singing. I believe the ghost of Freddie Mercury cried a little at that moment.) The band delivered a rocking version of Cheap Trick’s I Want You To Want Me and the crowd surged and danced as the energy flowed out from Big Mike and his band. Tongo Hiti closed the show with Come Sail Away. The crowd seemed unwilling to leave as the evening ended. While just for a few hours, the night proved to be just the escape that many of us needed. All too soon, we’d have to return to work or school and the everyday stresses of our normal life. Thanks to Big Mike and Tongo Hiti, however, we’d all gotten a taste of the islands. Perhaps it would prove to be enough to get us through until we can be on that sandy white beach with the palm trees swaying and the drinks flowing.
*Catch Tongo Hiti at Trader Vic’s every Thursday night for Mai Tai Thursdays. Trader Vic’s is located at the Hilton Atlanta, 255 Courtland Street. *