California Honeydrops raise roof at Fillmore

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Anya Schultz/Senior Staff

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On Saturday night, there was something like a private party at the Fillmore: Everybody in the room seemed to have someone in common. If instead of buying tickets for entry, attendants were required to personally know a member of the California Honeydrops or its team, there’s a good chance the 1,150-person venue would have been just as packed as it was Saturday night. In reality, the show sold out two weeks in advance.

The California Honeydrops is a local band. Getting its start on the street, the group grew up in BART stations and small venues around the East Bay. Now, seven years later, the Fillmore show marks another big achievement for a band with small beginnings. Since their days as street performers, the group has become a regular on the West Coast music festival circuit, completed nine international tours and shared the stage with music legends B.B. King, Dr. John and Buddy Guy.

Still, the Honeydrops play around the Bay regularly at traditional music venues, private parties, Zydeco dances, barn parties and whatever else. The California Honeydrops is a community band.

Before the music started Saturday night, leader singer, guitarist and trumpeter Lech Wierzynski wondered how many people had been to a California Honeydrops show before. A large majority of the crowd put a hand in the air. And how many had been to more than five shows? The same majority whooped.

“We wanted to play the Fillmore so we could all have a party together,” Wierzynski told the crowd. “We did it to see all of you in the same spot.”

The crowd was older Saturday night and no less energetic for it. Five songs into the first set, the ground at the Fillmore was shaking. Drummer Ben Malament asked a bouncing mass of people if they were enjoying the music. “Why did I even ask?” he said afterward over the cheers.

A California Honeydrops crowd is always a dancing crowd. But some of the action around the music Saturday night was distracting. Toward the beginning of the first set, women on stilts paraded the floor, blocking the view of the stage. Cabaret-style dancers came to the stage semi-regularly throughout the show, wiggling on the band. Wierzynski’s vocals were all but lost in the shout-singing of the crowd during “When It Was Wrong,” a California Honeydrops original. “I’m just going to let y’all sing this one,” he said, backing away from the microphone.

Distracting or not, crowd participation Saturday night was a happy testament to the California Honeydrops’ engaging sound. Fueled by the vintage showmanship of Wierzynski, the band beats Bay Area R&B, funk, Southern soul, Delta blues, gospel and New Orleans second-line tradition into infectious and danceable tunes. The shared vision, according to the band’s promotional material, is to make the audience dance and sing. Saturday night’s show, then, was a dream come true.

Over the course of the night, the audience sang a soulful tune with Wierzynski about cheating and making love with your shoes on, bobbed to a crunchy gospel tune with bassist Beau Bradbury, put on their best screwed-up blues faces with saxophonist Johnny Bones, laughed with keyboardist Lorenzo Loera during a funk song about his grandma and stomped with a barefooted fiddler to Malament’s washboard beat. The California Honeydrops don’t play to their audience –– they play with their audience.

At the end of the first song at Saturday night’s show, the crowd’s cheering reached a crescendo with Wierzynski’s final note on the trumpet. “I’m not sure if that was loud enough for the Fillmore,” Malament told the crowd. “We’re not used to this.”

If the volume of the crowd’s response is any indication, it’s time that the California Honeydrops got used to it.

Contact Eliot Claasen at [email protected].