Last Thursday night, in a rare occasion for a hip urban nightclub, everybody was dancing. For about three hours at the New Parish music club in Oakland, shyness and coolness gave way to bobbing heads and bouncing feet at the sound of the California Honeydrops, an Oakland-based band with music rooted in gospel, R&B, New Orleans second line and blues.
By the time the group took the stage, both floors of the New Parish were packed from wall to wall with people young and old, so much so that dozens were turned away at the door. Touring the United States and Europe behind their newest album of original tracks, Like You Mean It, the Honeydrops haven’t been back to the Bay Area since April. Thursday night’s show was something of a homecoming.
The band made its start as a trio in 2007, playing at BART stations in Oakland and Berkeley with a trumpet, a washboard and a tub-bass (or “soul-tub”). Picking up a few new members and a weekly gig at the Cheese Board Collective in North Berkeley, the Honeydrops got more and more work playing private parties — including a couple of shows at UC Berkeley co-ops — weddings, bars and clubs. By the time they began raising funds through Kickstarter to record their first full-length studio album, the Honeydrops had become a popular Bay Area act.
Making $26,000 through Kickstarter, recording Like You Mean It and picking up a manager — who happens to be a UC Berkeley graduate — the band has been busy touring and promoting for the past six months. The now five-piece group is becoming more and more accustomed to sold-out crowds and international recognition, playing festivals like Outside Lands, High Sierra and the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The California Honeydrops’ sound is an incredible mash-up of genre. At times sparse and soulful in the tradition of early R&B, at others a jubilant cacophony of horn and second-line rhythm, their music is difficult to label. Despite the all-over-the-map quality of its sound, the group finds coherence in its message and delivery, both of which are positive and celebratory. According to the group’s lead singer, trumpeter and songwriter, Lech Wierzynski, that’s what the music is all about — celebrating life.
“Some music makes you want to shoot yourself,” Wierzynski said after Thursday’s show. “That’s not what we do. Whatever’s going on with you, we’re going to make you forget it; we’re going to make you remember the good things. Sometimes you need music to remind you how good things actually are.”
Wierzynski, born in Warsaw, Poland, and raised in Chicago and Washington, D.C., grew up listening to gospel music. Though few songs touch on overtly spiritual themes — in fact, Wierzynski’s songs are just as often about loving as they are about love — it’s sometimes hard to control the urge to shout “Hallelujah!” But you’ll probably end up shouting something.
A Honeydrops show is a participatory experience. Out front, Wierzynski directs the band as much as he does the audience. During nearly every song Thursday night, he had the audience singing with him. At one point, he split the crowd and orchestrated a “freak-out” competition. He spent time between songs to check up on the general mood of the room, asking at least 10 times, “Oakland, are you feeling good?”
“We like to interact,” Wierzynski said. “I think that’s what makes us special. I think that’s what brings people back.”
“(A show) is like a conversation,” he added. “You’ve got to get everyone involved. You don’t play whatever you feel like playing; it’s all about connecting with people.”
When it comes to dancing, the audience needs no direction beyond the music. Whether it’s a funk tune that causes you to impersonate moves you’ve seen in “Soul Train” clips, a mournful ballad that makes you crinkle your nose and shake your head or a washboard-driven song that leaves you stomping around barn-dance style, there is no staying still. Thursday night’s Oakland crowd never stopped moving.
“It’s nice to play for the hometown crowd,” Wierzynski said. “I mean, they go the craziest. This is the freak show right here. The Bay Area has got some crazy-ass people.”
Now headed south and then on to Germany, the California Honeydrops plan on returning to the Bay Area music scene in January, starting with a New Year’s Eve gig at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. Word is, they might have a weekly slot at a new club, Leo’s, set to open on Telegraph Avenue and 55th Street this December.
Contact Eliot Claasen at [email protected].