Vintage soul and R&B songs, despite their quintessentially American origins, embody a sort of universality. If music is the universal language, these genres might be the Rosetta stone. “The feeling of that music is a very upbeat feeling,” says Lech Wierzynski, vocalist and trumpet player of the California Honeydrops. “In rhythm and blues and New Orleans music, people hear something like the traditional second line, and everyone knows what it’s for right away. They hear it, and it sounds like fun.”
That encapsulated sense of happiness — an open invitation to the party — is at the heart of a Honeydrops show. Following an enthusiastic reception at LEAF last fall, the Oakland, Calif.-based band returns to Asheville for a show at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Friday, May 6.
But Wierzynski, who came to the U.S. as a young child, is well-versed in the genre’s cross-cultural power. His dad, a political refugee from Poland, had discovered soul and R&B when he was growing up, though those records were banned in his home country. “For him, it was the ultimate rebel music,” says Wierzynski. “For me and my brother, it was the building block of how to be American.”
That joy of discovery — of sharing favorite records and bedroom dance parties — is felt at a Honeydrops show. The band feeds off of the energy of its audience, playing in the crowd and encouraging singalongs. The musicians (co-founder Ben Malament on percussion and washboard, Johnny Bones on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Lorenzo Loera on keyboard and melodica and Beau Bradbury on bass and percussion) never make setlists, Wierzynski says. They know what songs to lead with (originals like the brassy, cheeky “When It Was Wrong” are at home next to covers like Wilson Picket’s “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You”), “but we’re usually open to go with the flow,” says Wierzynski. “And we try to get the audience to go with the flow and make something different happen that day.”
While the Honeydrops play most of their shows in intimate venues (at LEAF, the band performed on the main Lakeside stage — along with kids they’d worked with as part of a LEAF Schools & Streets program — and inside Eden Hall), lately they’ve been on much bigger stages as openers for Bonnie Raitt. The famed blues songstress plays for a lot of sit-down crowds, Wierzynski points out, “but she has great fans. Her fans are music people.” The difference, he says, is a nice balance, allowing his band to “just focus on the music and focus on what we do.”
He continues, “Seeing her perform has been an amazing experience, too, watching her put herself into her songs night after night.” Raitt is a consummate artist but Wierzynski — though looser in his delivery — also pours soul into each performance. Though the musician describes himself as shy, onstage he’s wide open. His intuitive horn solos are well-matched with his bandmates’ deep grooves and addictive rhythms. The Honeydrops play with something close to telepathy, each instrument a separate limb of a single organism. And Wierzynski’s voice, lithe and emotive, is as responsive and adventurous as his trumpet.
Despite a hectic touring schedule (since LEAF, the Honeydrops have been to Australia, and between dates with Raitt they’ve been lining up their own headlining appearances), Wierzynski says the band is working on a follow-up to last year’s release, A River’s Invitation. The new record “will probably be a step backwards,” he says, to “rootsy, folky and blues elements that were not as prevalent on the last record.”
The Honeydrops are interested in the vintage recording equipment and techniques that help to capture that of-an-era sound, but the band is no revivalist project. “I don’t believe in evolution so much,” Wierzynski says. “I believe in things kind of cycling. We’re revisiting them at a different time.”
The band leader also believes in “pushing it one step further onstage, and I encourage the audience to do the same thing.” Sing along, dance harder or, heck, dance for the first time.
“When I see a really stiff crowd turn by the end of the night,” Wierzynski says, “that’s an amazing feeling.”
WHO: California Honeydrops
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, May 6, 9 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show