One sweet show: California Honeydrops deliver stunning performance

You may not have heard their name before, but the funky Bay Area band known as The California Honeydrops (CHD) has a strong enough following to sell out the Kahilu for a Sunday afternoon show. Originally, they were scheduled for a 60-minute livestream/in-person concert, but once the band got cookin’ and the crowd started dancing (in their socially distanced seating areas), the seven-piece ensemble remained on stage for nearly two hours.

CHD’s humble musical roots began 10 years ago as a jug band in an Oakland subway station busking for spare change as commuters headed for work, founding member and frontman Lech Wierzynski explained.

“It was a rootsy little trio with bass tub, washboard, and guitar,” Wierzynski recalled in our pre-show interview. “Eventually we started playing daytime gigs at a pizza parlor in Berkeley called The Cheeseboard.”

The band eventually expanded to a quintet and with the proceeds from their tip jar a community fundraiser they cut their first record. To date, the band has toured internationally and opened for icons B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Buddy Guy, and Dr. John.

The “Honeydrops” part of their name was influenced by a 1930s string band called The Tennessee Chocolate Drops. CHD’s multi-genre concert set is reflective of this period and filled with traditional Southern stomps, Delta blues rags, and the type of music you might hear blaring out of a Beale Street club in New Orleans.

“My dad was deep into New Orleans music, and as a kid, I started playing jazz trumpet,” Wierzynski said. “Over time, our band began playing a mish-mash of all of those different styles.”

Sunday’s show marked their Big Island concert debut, filled with faithful followers who cheered when the band asked the audience if they’d been to more than one of their shows.

CHD is a tight-knit group with Wierzynski calling the shots while handling vocals, trumpet, and guitar. Drummer Ben Malament did an excellent job keeping a steady groove and switched to washboards for a song called “Candy Man.” Gary Kehoe is the other half of the rhythm section playing congas, cymbals, and a seashell shaker.

The vibrant sax section (“the Honey Horns”) features Johnny Bones and Leon Cotter, and the rest of the band has Lorenzo Loera on keys and Beau Bradbury on bass. Occasionally band members switched instruments, which was not only fun to watch, but they are quite proficient at it, too.

In addition to their fine originals, CHD likes to give their own twist to covers such as Allen Toussaint’s “Brickyard Blues” and Lee Dorsey’s 1970 hit “Yes We Can Can.” There was even a version of Bob Marley’s “Mr. Chatterbox” for reggae fans.

House safety protocols for live music were in force, but occasionally you’d see a fan drift from their seat to dance in the aisle only to be ushered back to their designated area. Still, it felt like we’re getting back to normal with folks up and dancing again, and a recent comedy show with laughter filling the venue. There’s no word yet when the Kahilu will return to 100% capacity, but both the fans and entertainers will be ready.

CHD’s latest release is on Tubtone Records, an EP titled Just One, and Then Some, which Wierzynski describes as “a super old-school room recording with limited mics.” You can find it on streaming platforms and their website.

Steve Roby is a music journalist, bestselling author, and editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

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