After the once-in-a-lifetime, world altering event that was lockdown in response to COVID-19, much of the music-loving population, makers and listeners alike, had to determine how to cultivate and sustain the energy of live, in-person performance when tThe California Honeydrops he latter was rendered impossible. Oakland, CA band, The California Honeydrops faced a particularly tough challenge in this respect, as the west coast quintet has long drawn on and thrives in, atmospheres of communal performance and first-hand audiences. Early 2022 album Covers from the Cave (Tubtone Records, 2022) represented a physical preservation of the band’s efforts to stay connected to their fans across the globe via YouTube streamed performances of songs by artists the band greatly admires. That said, one can just imagine what it means to a group known not for playing shows, but for “throwing parties,” to be able to finally get back on the road and bring music, energy, and intention to people across the U.S.
The California Honeydrops are:
Lech Wierzynkski (Songwriter, Lead Vocalist, Multi-instrumentalist)
Ben Malament (Drums)
Johnny Bones (Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet)
Lorenzo Loera (Keyboards)
Beau Beaullieu (Bass)
Indeed, for a group that pays homage to a wide variety of styles rich in history and regional culture, including: R&B, southern soul, Delta blues, big band jazz, New Orleans second line music, and even a touch of Motown, The California Honeydrops are ecstatic to be back in their real life element. The joyous milestone began with the ability to gather together to record the music for the band’s new full length Soft Spot (Tubtone Records, 2022) and which continued with the start of an extensive fall tour across the country, kicked off on September 9 in St. Helena, CA. Making their way to the east coast, The California Honeydrops stopped in the heart of New York City’s Times Square this past Saturday, filling the walls of Sony Hall with the sounds of celebration and gratitude for community.
“How many of y’all are seeing us for the first time tonight?!” Wierzynkski asked the packed house, as the band had finished up what could best be described as an opening overture, rather than simply a first song of a set list. While calling the start of the show an overture might give the impression of rigid formality, the reference speaks much more to how The California Honeydrops set a mesmerizing tone for the evening. Pulling the audience in but keeping the energy loose, friendly, and light, the group used its intangible but undeniable performative chemistry to make a clear and decisive statement that though lively, no one would possibly want to interrupt. Introducing themselves to what turned out to be a room of mostly newcomers to the band’s live experience, it was pleasantly surprising, as well as incredibly telling, to see the way a room full of folks with no prior in-person experience with The California Honeydrops to draw upon, seemed right at home getting into the spirit of the music and the inviting presences of the band being shared on stage.
On the one hand, there’s a familiarity that comes with an upbeat concert experience. Dancing, shouting, congregating with others in a group…it’s not hard to see how there wouldn’t need to be a specific kind of familiarity with the band in order to have a good time and get into the mood shared by those around the room. On the other hand, there’s an embrace of fun and dancing in response to a band playing and there’s an avoidance of barriers and formalities among the band itself, that takes even the conventional stage layout of Sony Hall and makes it feel more equitable with the audience. Wierzynkski, who brandished a trumpet, a tambourine, a guitar, and a microphone at various points throughout the evening, was just as much engaged with his fellow bandmates and any excitement they each had about playing their respective instruments, as he was with the bustling crowd just a few feet beneath him. If the stage had been floor level, one would presume the band might have simply dispersed throughout the room and found a way to keep the music and mood going without missing a beat. It’s this energy that the band puts out prompting this very thought, that justifies the notion of parties over shows. The direction of enthusiasm wasn’t confined to a single tracked lined between the band and the audience, simply running back and forth. Much like the tone of Wierzynkski’s trumpet during many an improvised solo, enjoyment filled the room in all directions, noticed and appreciated among everyone like a night sky lit with a myriad of stars.
The sheer dynamics of the band – bolstered by guest musicians, another frequent facet of shows by The California Honeydrops – were intense. Wierzynkski gave his brass instrument of choice a distinctly dart-like precision tone at times, not unlike the strong and precise tone of Ivan Jackson from New York City based, soul and R&B inspired production duo, Brasstracks. Interestingly, another aspect the two bands share, is their avoidance of too much genre fixation. While The California Honeydrops have a definite appreciation for the sounds of many blues and soul styles as mentioned above, within each individual song, there are supporting hints of many kinds of music, none of which are neatly sectioned off like a pizza bearing different toppings in specific places. Opting to play a piece of new music found on Soft Spot titled “Honey and Butter,” the band showed its finesse with music of a slower speed and more intentional reflection. The song channeled the qualities of its titular foods: slowly unfolding, smooth slurred tones from the woodwinds and brass, and a relaxed swinging tempo that fed into the imagery of the snack that Wierzynkski explained, his grandmother would make for him as a child. There was an emotive tenderness and extra degree of sewn into the slow song as well, knowing that the song was written by Wierzynkski for his grandmother, who turned 100 during lockdown and very thankfully, is still living well today. Yet for all of this talk about slow, steady performance, the song also presented a touch of tropical pop, with a slight shift in rhythmic phrasing and a subtle but defined upward arpeggiating motif played on guitar that repeated with the easygoing waves of the change in the band’s groove, steadily transforming the feel of the musing to a different style of sway, with a shift in the audience’s dance moves to boot.
The transition from one song to the next was as smooth as a fall breeze. If it weren’t for the occasional break to chat directly with the audience, the whole experience could have easily been molded into one continuous thread. Changes in the music from the qualities of soul, to blues, to jazz would be the only individualized way to tell one phase apart from the next. Such a scenario would make it a little challenging to know what music is part of what song, and where things start and end. However, impressive solo displays like that of Johnny Bones’ nimbly tearing through a twisting saxophone improvisation with power and grace during a song crafted with a very Motown-style groove helped to serve as shining beacons of recalibration and musical clarity. As the band played on, the sound-drenched hall became saturated with the overlapping decays of the band at full blast but never did it feel like the event had lost focus. There’s an unspoken understanding among the band of how to flow from the colors of one style to the next, like the seamless changes of a kaleidoscope, and just as the audience of many newcomers was easily pulled in at the start, the crowd impressed with just as much of an unspoken understanding as the band. When folks chose to engage with call-and-response it wasn’t a simple matter of repeating a short phrase of words. This room of mostly first timers took on live music recall of a more tricky caliber: improvised scat led by Wierzynkski. It’s one thing to a first concert prepared with the knowledge of a band’s discography and favorite songs, knowing what to shout when the band is open to requests. It’s another to dive into a moment of connectedness with a singer, where there’s no knowing what’s about to come. Not only was everyone down for the challenge with no fear of fumbling but when Wierzynkski held their tongues to a twisty fire, the audience nailed every syllable!
This concert, as is likely the case with every other gig on this tour, was a truly community-oriented experience. All the bells and whistles of a finely tuned tour program, with all the “anything goes” spirit of a low key neighborhood band jam party. Jam bands and crowd enthusiasm at concerts isn’t new but the way The California Honeydrops are able to hone in on and pump up the excitement of everyone in the venues the go to play, without needing a whole lot of exposition, is impressive. This is even more so true when considering that the audience at Sony Hall spanned many ages and generations, offering music that is at once relatable but also doesn’t shy away from singing with passion and directness about the ups and downs of life, love, loss, success, and connection. No experience necessary to see The California Honeydrops.Simply drop in and know that the band is there to make memories right alongside the audience. It’s a straight-to-fun, family friendly, genre-flexible, dance-filled affair that will leave anyone in attendance feeling like they’re all united by a night of sincere joy once it’s over. This band embodies so much of the spirit of what the world lost when live music was on hold. Thank goodness The California Honeydrops held on and came back better than ever to bring the world their sweet style of sound.
Lastly, a shoutout to the audio engineer at Sony Hall. The show was extremely high on the decibel scale and though ear protection is always strongly advised when it comes to any amplified live music, the added skill of the house engineer led to a listening experience that felt balanced on the ears. Some aural shock from the length of loudness exposure is unavoidable but considering the amount of piercing and high-pitched tones played by much of the band, the aftershock didn’t leave as much of a lingering gap in higher end sounds or speech once the music had stopped. That is a sign of a well mixed house. Sony Hall deserves a big nod for a quality listening experience with a style of music that can definitely be hard to reign in and keep clear and under control.
Catch The California Honeydrops on the remainder of their Little Bit of Lovin’ Tour in the cities below.
Tickets available HERE.
The California Honeydrops – Little Bit of Lovin’ Tour
November 8 – Philadelphia, PA – World Cafe Live
November 9 – Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre
November 11 – Charlottesville, VA – The Jefferson Theater
November 12 – Asheville, NC – The Orange Peel
November 13 – Highlands, NC – Highlands Food and Wine Festival 2022
January 15-22, 2023 – Fort Lauderdale, FL – Sandy Beaches Cruise 2023
Keep up with the California Honeydrops through their official website and these social media platforms: