A classic joke may be the best way to introduce a weekend with the California Honeydrops: 5 guys walked into a bar…spiraled through a hole in the floor down a treacherous, horror story metal staircase, carrying instruments overhead to entertain a crowd of cult followers literally swooning. (The dark dive of the New Parish Theater momentarily wore the face of the Ed Sullivan stage where the Beatles could have tipped a hat to the crowd. Women, and a few men, lunged at the air for the floating hearts they surely saw dangled before them, ready to faint, cheer, sing, dance, bear children, pay overdue parking tickets…or whatever else this musical entourage might have requested).
The band quickly became 7 members, then 9, down to 4, up to 12, back to 8…revolving in a roulette wheel of musical flavors. They had a metaphorical drink with Chuck Berry, poured a shot for Nat King Cole, had a bottle of wine with Louie Armstrong, a pint with Ray Charles, a keg with the Rebirth Brass Band and a dance with Aretha Franklin in a New Orleans Jazz club deep in the heart of…Oakland, California. They became a brass band. A string band. An a cappella band. A rhythm and blues, Southern soul funk band. A washboard playin’ old-timey group of sweet young men. A lecherous rock n’ roll band with a strong side effect of possible fornication. Read warning labels before ingesting and talk with your doctor to see if this music might be right for you (if you can get her to stop dancing long enough for a consult).
They played basic, simple beats and filled that landscape with vocal colors capable of taunting a sunset to bounce the horizon long past dusk. Antoni Lech Wierzynkski (Lech) on lead vocals belted out a funky falsetto groove that could sing the ingredients on a can of beans mixed with 1040 tax instructions and sound sexy. He harmonized at full volume. Yelling beautifully and playfully, he drew the audience into the experience with call and response of simple words like: “Oh,” and “Baby,” turned into multi-syllable words before ending with a powerful, “Yeah!” pronounced as a full complex, punctuated sentence.
Lech sang duets with the saxophones (one to three on stage at a time). The horns went for a walk and disagreed about the pace in a textured gait of sound. Lips no longer on reeds, the high wail of the sax would continue none the less. I searched the stage for it and found Lech on the mic rounding out the horns with a vocal brass explosion. The conversations went both directions and Johnny Bones on tenor sax often finished the high notes of Lech’s vocal prowess.
The first night was an infectious dance party. The second night told a story in the set. It built with crescendo, technically skilled solos, variety, sweetness and debauchery.
A versatile group, performing a soul groove circus, they mixed more than just style, sound and genre; they mixed the instruments themselves. At times, the bassist, Beau Bradbury, played the drums with wire brushes and sticks; at other times he played a tambourine and cow bell; also, he played the bass. Situated in a tight piano/keyboard wedge, Lorenzo Loera sat between the two instruments playing the keys. Every now and then he picked up a rhythm guitar, or left all instruments to harmonize vocally with guest singers who joined the band like passersby drawn into the infectious sounds of a second line parade. The drummer, Ben Malament, left his throne to deflower a washboard. Belly rubbing up his torso, he smacked the corners with an extreme pace and rhythm that could have made a concrete wall purr. Lech played a trumpet, guitar and starburst kaleidoscope tambourine.
They all sang and sang well, setting this band apart not with musicality but with personality and an ability to play their voices like jump ropes woven through rhythm and blues painting a game the whole town wants to play. Their bodies moved synchronistically in their own separate corners—dancing to the same subtle tide. Flesh floated buoyantly, as if grooving over stepping stones of funky soul glass, smoothed over years of relentless joy.
Lech divulged insight into the inspiration for some of the music. Like that tale as old as time when you save a piece of fried chicken, wrap it in tin foil and put it in your pocket for later…then forget about it for a day or two. Until, as Lech put it, “A pretty little honey shows up with some hot sauce and says, ‘Looks like you need a little spice in your life.’” for a song I suspect was titled: Hot Sauce On Your Pocket Chicken. This begged so many questions for me…How many people are walking around with pocket chicken? Do vegetarians carry pocket broccoli? Are there whole groups of fetishists just walking around with hot sauce hoping to land upon one of these pocket foodies? Is it a group only known widely within the medical profession who deal with the common resulting food poisoning that follows pocket chicken tendencies?
A less mind jarring story followed to describe Bedside Window. A sweet song in Sunday’s encore that Lech wrote about his first love. Tired of whining about the hurt, he picked the sweetest memory he could recall and wrote a song about it. They followed with an a cappella version of, Love Lifted Me, with gospel claps backing the beauty of voices. This transitioned directly into a free-for-all, full band revelry. Someone must have snuck a trampoline in front of the stage to have moved those bodies with such vibrant, unhindered abandon. Some patrons may actually have flung their limbs wildly enough to have launched the rest of their body onto stage. The carnage of others knocked out cold from their own exertion lined the bar. A smile spanned the lips of both.