By Dan Collins
A bar patron in a long, flowery dress whisps past the stage, twirling to the music with a smile. This type of energy inspires Randall Rospond to keep performing.
After almost three decades with the Haiku Hillbillys, Rospond, 60, typically appears solo. Anchoring the corner of a bar or restaurant, he samples rhythm guitar and plays lead over it. At first, the sound is a bit contrived but after a moment, the cleverness of his ethereal solo grabs your attention.
Rospond’s goal is to create a musical tapestry that is unique to every show. He is inspired by movie soundtracks that invoke a mood and the beat poets of the early ‘60s. But there is a myriad of sounds and experiences that lead Rospond’s latest album, “Storyland…The New While.”
The influence of Jerry Garcia is identifiable in his new album and live performances. Rospond has attended enough Grateful Dead shows that he declines to even make an estimate of how many. But his musical roots go deeper than a Dead tour.
Rospond was born in a Toronto suburb in the early ‘60s. His aunt worked in a record store, bringing him Beatles releases before anybody had their hands on them. His parents were also music lovers. Rospond was enrolled in a creative school program where he learned how hippies were using watercolors and oil to create trippy light shows to go along with the LSD-inspired music that was coming of age at the time, opening up a window into the world of psychedelia.
After high school, Rospond’s parents encouraged him to focus on a career in business. Rospond registered for marketing and advertising classes at a college in Florida. “But it was psychedelics that really turned me on,” he said, which he credits as inspiration for his musical pursuits. As in life, the musical path he took was the unbeaten one. Quoting the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, he said, “Early on we knew that we weren’t going to be a top 40 band.”
“I was kinda like that, too,” Rospond admitted. “The people who I loved, like David Lindley, the New Riders, Leon Russell, Tom Waits, and Patti Smith—they were niche artists that spoke to me, but a lot of mainstream people didn’t get them.”
Longing to be part of a band, he teamed up with some like-minded kids and formed a punk band called The Dead Flowers. “A sort of punk rock Rolling Stones with a lot more makeup,” Rospond described.
Following a particularly discouraging meeting with record company executives, Rospond found himself at a palm reader’s shop. The shop was closed, but a lady came to the door. He explained that he only had about five bucks to his name but she invited him in. “It was so magical. She told me who I was and just nailed it.”
According to Rospond, she said, “You’ve been working really hard at being a rock star, but it’s harsher than you really are. You’re a little more sensitive than that. You’re on the right track, but you’re playing stuff that’s beating people over the head. It’s much softer, what you have inside you.” Rospond said she was right and dove headfirst into folk music.
In 1992, he came to Maui on a college student exchange program and was hired to manage a surf shop in Pa‘ia. Not long after arriving the Hillbillys formed. At first, they were just a group of talented friends, but soon they were playing regular gigs. They shared the stage with Willie K. and the musical duo Hapa for the grand opening of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Yokouchi Pavilion and became a popular opening act.
“I’ll do the opener for some rock star at the MACC one night, and the next night I’m playing in a restaurant and nobody cares who I am,” Rospond said with a smile. “A lot of times people aren’t paying any attention. Sometimes you are background music, so it can be more funky.”
With age, Rospond has loosened up, favoring electric guitar over acoustic. It’s easier on his arthritic fingers. He also loves to experiment with a looper pedal his wife gave him a few years ago.
At the end of the day, it is still the appreciation of a live audience that keeps him going. “When I can tell somebody’s really listening, or they ask ‘Who’s song is that?’ I tell them it’s my song and they just made my night.”
Rospond’s recent limited release, “Storyland—The New While,” comes as a signed and numbered double CD. Artfully packaged and available on his website.