From BART to the big-time, the California Honeydrops stay in touch with their roots

Anya Schultz/Staff

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The California Honeydrops were once a popular act at East Bay BART stations. In 2007, they played at the Cheese Board Collective in North Berkeley and some Berkeley Student Cooperative parties. On Saturday, the California Honeydrops join the ranks of the biggest names in music, performing at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

The California Honeydrops’ sound is a bright collage of rhythm and blues, funk, Southern soul, Delta blues, New Orleans second-line and something else. Led by the Polish-born son of political refugees, the one-time jug band has since grown into a five-man touring and recording group with a fifth album in the works. Already, they have played festival slots at High Sierra Music Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival and Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, completed nine international tours and shared the stage with B.B. King, Dr. John and Buddy Guy.

The Daily Californian sat down with the California Honeydrops’ lead singer, guitarist and trumpeter Lech Wierzynski to talk about playing the Fillmore, staying in touch with one’s roots and moving in with your grandma.

The Daily Californian: With the Fillmore gig coming up, there’s no doubt that the California Honeydrops have come a long way from BART. What’s changed since then?

Lech Wierzynski: Our music is more and more our own. We started out as a kind of jug band, playing very traditional old music. We’ve since pushed our sound to all kinds of places, doing things people have never heard before. But our purpose has stayed the same: We want to show people a good time. That’s the grounding element of the band. We’re an interactive band –– an entertaining band. We don’t sit there and sing our deep songs and expect people to think that we’re great artists. We go out there. We talk to people. We sing with people. We tell people stories. We keep it improvisational. We get off the mics and play like we did on the street.

DC: At a big place like the Fillmore, is it more difficult to engage the crowd?

LW: We’ve played some very big rooms before. We still get down on the floor!

DC: What does the Fillmore gig mean?

LW: The Fillmore is a huge show. As a public entity, as a brand, it’s a milestone for us. We can say, “Yeah, we played the Fillmore.” But more than that, it’s going to be fun to see all our people from around the Bay in one spot. There’ll be people from our Zydeco barn dances and R&B dancers and weirdo hippies from our underground parties and regular folks who used to see us around in bars and on the street –– people who used to see us playing for change or just playing for fun. That’s what will make it a special show.

DC: Has touring changed your relationship to Oakland and the Bay Area?

LW: We’re a hometown band. This is always home. National success –– that shit doesn’t last. Let’s say our new album gets big and we’re some hot thing. Five years later, we might not be hot anymore. What happens then? What’s left in your hometown for you after life on the road? We’d like to positively impact the local music scene so that musicians and artists can thrive in a place where it’s increasingly expensive to live. We want to come home and have gigs to play. We’ve started donating some of our proceeds to school music programs in the Bay for that reason: to encourage a culture in which people appreciate live music.

DC: Your new album comes out next year. What can we expect?

LW: If you’ve listened to our other records, you know that they’re all very different from one another. This next one will continue in that tradition. We’re digging into some really old stuff –– more blues and slow, traditional stuff –– while we simultaneously push the envelope with some of the more progressive things of our own imagination. We’ve got this great new tune about our keyboardist Lorenzo moving in with his grandma.

DC: Will you play any songs from the new album at the Fillmore?

LW: We’ll probably play the grandma song, yeah. But it’s just like on the street; we never make setlists. We’re going to go up there and play the damn show. And we’re going to have some fun.
The California Honeydrops will play at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Saturday. Doors open at 8 p.m.