The California Honeydrops Bring the Catharsis of Joy

Music Features The California Honeydrops
The California Honeydrops Bring the Catharsis of Joy

The California Honeydrops aren’t famous yet, but they promise to be one of the most exciting bands on the concert circuit this summer. They proved as much when they brought their horn-fueled form of Southern Soul and New Orleans funk to Delfest, the annual Memorial Day Weekend festival hosted by bluegrass legend Del McCoury. Again and again the Honeydrops confronted the challenges of life in the 2020s and provided a joyful catharsis.

As their name implies, the California Honeydrops aren’t from the American South; they’re based in Oakland. Moreover, Lech Wierzynski, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, is a Polish immigrant. This double remove from the music they love gives them a different take on a tradition worn down by oldies nostalgia and troubled history. The band redeems this legacy by filling it with an optimism that is more than just an attitude; it’s an approach to craft as high in its standards as in its hopes.

“Like most immigrants,” Wierzynski says, “I had one foot in each culture. We never spoke English at home, but I grew up on American radio. The advantage I had was I could hear it from another perspective. To an outsider like me, all American music seems very similar. Bluegrass and R&B might seem different if you’re American, but to me they have many more similarities than differences.”

During the California Honeydrops’ Friday night set at Delfest, Wierzynski reached back to one of his earliest compositions, “Cry for Me.” He had written it for Fran Dincin, the Chicago woman who welcomed the Wierzynski family when they first arrived in the U.S. It was Dincin who encouraged young Lech’s artistic curiosity, which led to his life as a musician. When she died in 2005, he was staggered, but he responded in classic New Orleans fashion by celebrating the life rather than mourning the death.

“I wanted to write a sad song,” Wierzynski recalls, “but that didn’t seem fit the joy she had brought into my life. Thanks to her I was set on a different path, so the song was as much about me as her. It’s good to have a crazy aunt or crazy uncle who can give you some options. Maybe it’s not so good to have crazy parents.”

The California Honeydrops are a quintet, but they perform live as an octet. On “Cry for Me,” Wierzynski’s trumpet kicked off a carnival fanfare by the sax, clarinet, trombone and trumpet. New Orleans funeral processions are accompanied by slow, somber music on the way to the graveyard but by bouncy, celebratory music on the way back, and this was definitely in the latter category.

Wierzynski—sporting pink pants, a brightly colored quilt shirt and a thick orange beard—lowered his trumpet and contemplated his own death. “Oh when they bury me ‘neath the ground,” he sang in a subdued high tenor over the march beat. Ben Malament cracked the snare drum and then rolled triplets for a complementary syncopation, and Johnny Bones’ clarinet was swinging high and free. We were coming back from the cemetery now. “I want my people in the street all doin’ that second line beat,” Wierzynski called out, as the energy escalated, “and I don’t want no one to cry for me.”

“The second line is part of the music I love,” he explains, “and it was a great way to send Fran out. Everyone in the band loves New Orleans music; it’s as if we were all drawn to it instinctively. My dad was into Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong, and I heard all those records growing up. ‘Muskat Ramble’ was ingrained in my brain.”

It’s very hard for a band from outside Louisiana to play the state’s music accurately—so much of the feel for that sound comes from absorbing it as a child in parades, funerals, festivals and street parties. Most outsiders are either too stiff or too sloppy. But the California Honeydrops are the exception that proves the rule. Moreover, they never get trapped in “the way it’s always been done,” as many in-staters do. These out-of-staters add both California looseness and jazz-musician chops.

“You can’t help but change the music,” he insists. “At home, I try to learn what’s on the record, but on stage it’s going to come out its own way. I like to combine things. I’ll hear a Don Williams country song, and I’ll say, ‘That would be a good R&B song.’ Or I’ll hear a Sam Cooke soul song, and I’ll say, ‘That would be a great country song.’ You don’t have to try to put your own spin on things; it just happens.”

Some acts recreate older music more successfully than others. It helps to have a healthy respect for the tradition but not too much respect. It helps to have original material that fits with the older songs and holds its own. And it helps to recognize that most vintage, working-class music is fundamentally dance music.

“A lot of our music is dancing music,” Wierzynski says. “That puts you into a dialogue with the audience. They’re not just listening to the song; they’re moving to it. It’s a way to process all the ups and downs of life. My favorite moments on stage are when I see the whole room moving, when people aren’t looking at the stage anymore but at each other, when they’re working through their problems through the music. We’re all one big organism at that point.”

The band’s set at Delfest this year was studded with American roots-music standards: “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You” by Memphis soul singer Otis Clay, “Tulsa Time” by country crooner Don Williams, “Trouble in Mind” by jazz singer Dinah Washington, “Come Back, Baby” by Oklahoma blues singer Lowell Fulson, and “Let the Good Times Roll” by gospel-soul pioneer Sam Cooke. But there were just as many compositions by Wierzynski, and those songs boasted a similar economy of storytelling, catchiness of melody and depth of groove.

One of those songs, “The Squirrel Juice Blues,” pairs a Fats Waller tune with Wierzynski’s new lyrics. It’s part of Soft Spot: The Deluxe Edition,, which the band is releasing this month. The new version adds nine bonus tracks to last year’s dozen-originals version. It’s further evidence that the California Honeydrops are much more than mere revivalists; they are adding substantial songs to the tradition.

The California Honeydrops

Credit: J. Strausser

“Songs don’t have to be complicated or hyper-literary,” Wierzynski argues. “Allen Toussaint and Earl King aren’t Bob Dylan, but they’re still great lyricists. The storytelling in Chuck Berry’s songs is simple, but it paints a picture you can’t forget.”

A go-with-the-flow optimism flavors Wierzynski’s best songs. The new song “Nothing at All,” for example, opens with a relaxing, soul-ballad guitar figure and eases into a chorus that seems to summarize the band’s philosophy. “The harder you hold on,” Wierzynski croons in his high-register, “Quiet Storm” tenor, “the sooner it slips away. So don’t you take too much; you’ll end up with nothing at all.”

Bradbury’s funky bass and the punchy horns represent the adrenaline-pumped lifestyle Wierzynski is resisting on another new song, “Takin’ My Time.” “If you in a hurry,” he sings, “you can leave me behind, ‘cause I’m a-takin’ my time.” He’s at his Curtis Mayfield best on the gospel-flavored soul of “Gonna Be Alright.”

“I’ve been trying to make my songs shorter to see how much meaning I can pack into fewer words and still tell the story,” he says. “The Soft Spot songs are shorter, but I’m still trying to figure out how make them even more compact. Yeah, a lot of them are positive-advice songs, but that’s my smarter self talking to my actual self.”

It was songwriting that got the California Honeydrops an unlikely gig at a bluegrass festival. In the set before their own at Delfest, the four horn players from the Honeydrops joined the Del McCoury Band on stage to play Wierzynski’s gospel composition, “Other Shore.” As the strings and horns went back to a time when Dixieland and old-time country were very similar, Wierzynski and Del McCoury promised the crowd that “we’ll meet on the other shore.”

At Delfest on May 26 (from left): Oliver Tuttle, Johnny Bones, Leon Cotter, Heaven McCoury, Rob McCoury, Ronny McCoury, Lech Wierzynski, Alan Bartram and Del McCoury. (Photo by J. Strausser, courtesy of IVPR)

“When I’m on stage,” Wierzynski confesses, “and Del is singing my song, I have to pinch myself and ask, ‘Am I dreaming?’ How did the last of the true bluegrass singers come to sing my song. I could die then, knowing I’d done something with my life.”

“Other Shore” was first released on the California Honeydrops’ 2013 album, Like You Mean It, as was “Here Comes Love,” which Bonnie Raitt recorded for her pandemic album, Just Like That. She even took the Honeydrops on tour as an opening act.

“She’s the sweetest person on earth,” Wierzynski reports, “and a fucking genius. She and Ray Charles and Aretha are the best interpreters of songs there are. They have a way to get inside those emotions.”

Wierzynski’s parents were journalists severely constrained by Poland’s Stalinist government—the original cancel culture—and they finally escaped to the U.S. in 1984, when Lech was three years old. About 20 years ago, his mother and father returned to a democratic Poland. Like most immigrant parents, Lech’s hoped he would go to college and become a doctor or a lawyer—as his brother eventually did. He gave it a good try at Oberlin University in Ohio, but he just couldn’t suppress his artistic inclinations.

“Everyone has that moment of decision,” he says. “For me, it was when I was 20 in college. I realized I had to do it; I had to have music in my life. I’d just been skating by academically, and I knew I no longer had the capacity to do those other things. I realized music could soothe and ground me, that it was a better path for the challenges I was facing then. It brought my mind around to where it should be.”

Wierzynski had been a serious jazz trumpeter during his high school years in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. The school band was so good, they were invited to play in South Africa. He was a big Ornette Coleman fan, but then he heard the Grateful Dead, who were improvising within music that was more accessible. He heard Mississippi John Hurt, whose country-blues guitar playing was as interesting as Lee Morgan’s trumpet playing.

“The question was how to combine all these things,” Wierzynski reflects. “Then I heard Ray Charles, who did everything. That was exciting, but how could you do that without a big band? Then I heard Snooks Eaglin, and he was doing Ray Charles on acoustic guitar. Then I heard jug band music, which was jazz played on toy instruments. What could be more fun than making music with a kazoo, washtub bass, washboard and jug?”

Wierzynski, his then-girlfriend Nansamba Ssensalo and Malament formed a jug band at Oberlin and then drifted west to Oakland, Ssensalo’s hometown. They played indoors when they could and on the street when they had to. Wierzynski, Ssensalo and Malament called their jug band the California Honeydrops, and their swing/jump blues band the Jelly Roll Souls. Meanwhile, Wierzynski landed sideman gigs as a trumpeter with Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks and Johnny Otis’ former singer Jackie Payne.

The first album under the California Honeydrops name was 2008’s Soul Tub, featuring Wierzynski, Malament, Ssensalo and pianist Chris Burns on 11 songs either written or co-written by Wierzynski. When Ssensalo left the group, they hired Beau Bradbury on bass, Lorenzo Loera on keys, and Yanos “Johnny Bones” Lustig on reeds. By 2013, the current Honeydrops line-up was set.

Since then, it’s been a slow, steady accumulation of fans, mostly won over by the concerts. Those shows rely not on the long solos of jam bands nor on the musty nostalgia of soul-revival acts. Instead they rely on the expert chops and cohesion of the eight musicians—and on Wierzynski’s anti-gravitational tenor and high-wattage charisma. Nonetheless, they find it challenging to be taken seriously.

“People have always thought of us as a party band,” Wierzynski laments. “I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, because of that. But getting that recognition from Del and Bonnie changed everything. You can call us a party band; you can call me a clown, but if we’re good enough for those two, we know we’re good enough.”

Check out the California Honeydrops’ Paste Session from 2022 below.

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