Music News & Reviews

California Honeydrops bring party atmosphere to Live Oak concert

The California Honeydrops will perform June 18 at Live Oak Music Festival in northern Santa Barbara County.
The California Honeydrops will perform June 18 at Live Oak Music Festival in northern Santa Barbara County.

To say that The California Honeydrops love to party might be a bit of an understatement.

The Oakland-based band, known for its groove-worthy stage shows and infectious blend of Delta blues, Southern soul, New Orleans jazz and Bay Area R&B, is a fun-loving fixture on the music festival circuit.

“We get to play outdoors all summer long. It’s a pretty good lifestyle,” Lech Wierzynski, the band’s lead singer, trumpet player and guitarist, said with a chuckle.

The California Honeydrops will take the stage June 18 at Live Oak Music Festival in northern Santa Barbara County. The popular outdoor festival, a fundraiser for public radio station KCBX, runs June 17 through 19 at Live Oak Camp near Cachuma Lake.

Other acts lined up to perform include Wynonna and the Big Noise, James McMurty, the Jay Farrar Trio and Sarah Jarosz.

For the California Honeydrops, frequent visitors to the Central Coast, the start of the mellow summer concert season signifies a welcome change of pace. “It’s a good feeling all around,” Wierzynski said, one that seems well-suited to his band’s music.

Jazz and blues greats Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke served as musical starting points for Wierzynski, who was born in Warsaw, Poland, and raised in Washington, D.C. While studying ethnomusicology at Oberlin College in Ohio, he started a jug band with classical violinist Nansamba Ssensalo.

In 2004, he and Ssensalo moved to the Bay Area, where they were joined by another Oberlin graduate, drummer/washboard player Ben Malament. The trio began busking in Oakland BART stations. (Ssensalo and pianist Chris Burns, who appear on the California Honeydrops’ first album, 2008’s “Soul Tub,” are no longer with the band. The current lineup includes Beau Bradbury on bass and percussion; Lorenzo Loera on keyboards and melodica and Johnny Bones on saxophone and clarinet.)

Performing for busy commuters taught Wierzynski about the importance of engaging an audience, he said, a lesson that’s stuck with him to this day.

“We try to connect with the crowd and see where they want to go, where we can take them,” he said. “We still come down from the stage … to get a little closer to everybody and give them that direct experience, get down on their level.”

Just as busking broadened his horizons as a performer, the move to Oakland introduced Wierzynski to a diverse Bay Area music scene that has produced artists as varied as R&B band Tower of Power, psychedelic soul/funk powerhouse Sly and the Family Stone and blues musicians Charles Brown and Lowell Fulson.

“A lot of the music from the Bay has Southern roots,” Wierzynski said, tapping into a tradition dating to the 1930s and ’40s. “The music we do is essentially a mix of New Orleans music and western R&B. … What is New Orleans music but every kind of music in the world put together in one thing?”

What’s more, he continued, “It’s music with humor. It’s music with fun. It’s music with a lot of life force to it.

“Life is messed up enough already. You don’t need to have (sad) songs all the damn time.”

We try to connect with the crowd and see where they want to go, where we can take them.

Lech Wierzynski, lead singer, trumpet player and guitarist of The California Honeydrops

For his part, Wierzynski said he’s naturally drawn to “happy-feeling music.”

“That’s the way I use music in my life, to feel positive and to lift my mood.” he said. “I kept being drawn back to music that made me want to dance, music with a positive vibe.”

The California Honeydrops try to bring the same positive attitude to their live shows. Sets can last hours — “We have a repertoire of hundreds of songs, (so) it’s really hard to get them (all) in there,” Wierzynski explained — and sometimes veer into unexpected territory.

“A lot of times we just let it fly,” he said.

According to Wierzynski, Live Oak attendees can expect to hear “some of our so-called hits that you’ve never heard of” — such as “Brokedown,” “Like You Mean It,” “Pumpkin Pie” and “When It Was Wrong” — as well as cuts from California Honeydrops’ latest album, “A River’s Invitation,” which was released in September.

He described the low-key “Long Way,” in which the band sings about “walking in the shoes of another, learning what we don’t want to know,” as “our only political kind of song.” “It’s nice to have that in there as a change of pace and a change of mood for a second,” he said.

Mostly, however, he and his bandmates want to keep the good vibes going. “That’s what we love the most,” he said.

“The studio is interesting for me, but I get tired of it. I get out of my damn mind,” Wierzynski said, “whereas after a good show I feel like I’m back on my feet again.”

Live Oak Music Festival

2 p.m. to midnight June 17, 8 a.m. to midnight June 18, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. June 19

Live Oak Camp, Highway 154, near Cachuma Lake

$65 to $130, $25 to $40 children ages 4 to 12, free for children under 4; $15 to $140 parking and camping passes

781-3030 or