The California Honeydrops held happy, raucous court at the Crystal Bay Club’s Crown Room last Sunday evening – the liveliest little party that could, this side of the Playa – for a celebratory Sunday evening revival chock-full for diehard fans and the uninitiated alike boogying to the joyous, funky sounds.
It’s always a tip-off when fans tell you they’ve been to numerous shows of the same band in one calendar summer (which many had), and one can understand why: it’s an easy sweep of conversion to this fabled band’s singing, dancing and swinging sacrament. And the great thing about the Honeydrops’ crowd is its widespread demographic appeal: everyone, from indies to hippies, and old-timers putting us young folks to shame with their ballroom moves, shimmied on the dance floor, shaking and dipping and diving the night away to the soulful, energetic music the band laid down.
The California Honeydrops’ vibrant musical mélange boasts a heavenly New Orleans second-line influence, steeped in West Cost rhythm and blues with a hearty spicing of soul, funk, Delta blues, boogie-woogie, jug band elements and a dash of reggae and ska stylings to cook up a most divine gumbo. The band’s “organic, street” feeling still predominates as multi-instrumentalist and front man Lech (pronounced Lesh) Wierzynski works the crowd with his funny antics, chatting people up, conversing and cajoling us with honeyed vocals (tones of Taj Mahal) like we’re just hanging out on the corner together. The man is like a Johnny Cash protégé, crossed with Louis Armstrong and Sam Cooke (his contraband musical influences back in childhood Poland), with a touch of sultry, cut-loose Sinatra thrown in to keep it classy, sexy, and cool.
From their opening “Big Boss Man” – the funkiest version played this side of the Mississippi – to every satisfied last note of the night’s encore extravaganza, the California Honeydrops delivered. When the band shifted into a sweet, slowed down version of “People Get Ready,” the dancing crowd rose up on waves of musical honey. Beau Bradbury, relaxed and smiling, laid down his steady bass line alongside drummer Ben Malament’s versatile chops on kit drums and washboard. In addition to lead vocals, Wierzynski played a mean guitar, blew a powerful trumpet, and accompanied (as did several band members) on tambourine; Lorenzo Loera commanded the be-bop keyboards, with Johnny Bones on tenor sax and clarinet, and conga player/percussionist Warren Charles Jones.
The band originally formed around drummer Malament and Wierzynski busking in an Oakland BART station (imagine the acoustics!), which rings true to how Wierzynski warbles, preaches, soars and howls like a speeding night train, or a nightingale bound for sheer redemptive glory. His strong, pure vocals led the Sunday night congregation (that the crowd had now become) as he would chirp, serenade, belt, scat, whistle, and wail like an old-new classic, a front man to bring up the performance ante like no other.
With the band’s tight musicianship and flavor of fulltime fun backing him, Wierzynski dexterously spurred call-and-response choruses, teamed his wavering trumpet cries and driving guitar leads with Jones’ swaying saxophone notes and Loero’s wild keyboard ride, for a rousing and uproarious musical experience. At one point, seeing how hard the crowd was dancing, Wierzynski called out, “I think those wooden floorboards are bouncing!” which only caused more shouts and screams of “Hallelujah” from the jubilant, satisfied audience. Switching it up during the encore, Loera picked up the bass, Wierzynski covered keys, with bassist Bradbury on drums, while Malament took the lead as front man, singing and sweet-talking the crowd to join him in bringing up the vibe one last rollicking time before releasing us all – sanctified – into the starry Tahoe night.
If you didn’t get enough of this boisterous band, or are just ready for your next installment of sweet honey pouring down, the California Honeydrops will appear at Strawberry Music Festival in Tuolumne this coming Friday and Saturday, Sept. 4-5, with its new album release party (“A River’s Invitation”) the following Friday and Saturday, Sept. 11-12 at The Fillmore, in San Francisco. Catch the honeyed wave ….