A taste of honey: California Honeydrops return to Santa Cruz for three-show run
At a loss on what to do as 2021 turns to 2022? Between the Honeydrops’ R&B-soul blend and the White Album Ensemble’s late-period Beatles, Wallace Baine has a few ideas to get you rockin’ into New Year’s.
So, what’s it gonna be, post-Christmas party people? Live Beatles tunes? Or jumpin’ R&B and soul? The White Album Ensemble, the dedicated fellowship of Santa Cruz musicians performing late-period Beatles albums track by track, is back at the Rio where they began 18 years ago.
And over in Felton, the big high-energy Bay Area band The California Honeydrops are honey-dropping in at the Felton Music Hall.
It sounds like a choice, but it really isn’t. Each band is playing multiple nights at their respective venues, so if you’re looking to show off that new outfit you got for Christmas, why not go out and see both?
The Oakland-based Honeydrops finish up their 2021 with an unusual three-date, two-venue Santa Cruz run, Wednesday and Thursday night gigs at Felton Music Hall, then on to the Catalyst for New Year’s Eve. The WAE comes to the Rio for back-to-back shows on Wednesday and Thursday (the band was also originally set for a three-night stand, but dialed it back to two).
The revolving roster of the White Album Ensemble has, for years, consisted of a kind of who’s who of Santa Cruz rock musicians, most prominently keyboardist Dale Ockerman, ex of The Doobie Brothers, and guitarist Ken Kraft, ex of Snail. But the California Honeydrops also have their Santa Cruz story.
Though based in the Bay Area, the Honeydrops have long considered Santa Cruz a kind of second home, having played in a variety of local venues since the band’s beginnings back in the late 2000s. Bass player and percussionist Beau Bradbury is a UC Santa Cruz grad, having earned his music degree in 2009.
The Honeydrops were already up and running as a band when Bradbury first began playing around town in various other bands and lineups. “I would pretty much see them every time they came through Santa Cruz,” said Bradbury. “I saw them at the Crepe Place and the Rio. A couple of them even played a house party that I threw for Halloween, and that was all before I joined the band.”
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The Drops traced their beginnings back to the mid-2000s, when founders guitarist Lech Wierzynski and drummer Ben Malament started busking together in an Oakland subway stop. Once the band began performing on stages, it quickly developed a fan base in the East Bay. “The second place that really developed a strong following and fan base, a place where could go and feel like home, was Santa Cruz,” said the Drops’ saxophonist, Johnny Bones, who cited former Moe’s Alley owner Bill Welch as an early supporter of the band.
Since then, the Honeydrops have been a regular visitor to Santa Cruz venues, though this week’s three-date run represents a kind of post-pandemic reset for the band locally. Like many bands, the Honeydrops stopped performing live in the early months of the pandemic and turned instead to virtual streamed performances, many of which today live on YouTube.
As many musicians have discovered, the pandemic shutdown has yielded an upside. All that streaming has expanded the band’s fan base in a way that live, in-person performances can’t because of the limitations of geography. And now those fans who discovered the Drops online are buying tickets.
“I think we reached a lot of people through these other mediums,” said Bones. “We just recently played up in Bend, Oregon, and I can’t remember ever playing for more than 300 or so people there in the past. But (this time) it was a thousand people sold out on a Friday night. It was an awesome show.”
The Honeydrops spent much of the year recording and releasing singles of cover tunes that showcase the band’s wide range of influences. Among the singles released in ’21 is the country shuffle “Tulsa Time,” recorded by Don Williams and Eric Clapton, among others, the Buddy Guy blues number “Key Don’t Fit,” Bobby “Blue” Bland’s soul classic “Up and Down World,” James Taylor’s signature ballad “Fire and Rain,” and the immortal summer song “Under the Boardwalk,” among others. Though from wildly different genres and styles, the Drops bring these songs together as a cohesive whole with their soulful R&B approach to each.
That broad base of musical influences is in keeping with the band’s mission, said Bones. “When the California Honeydrops first started out, even our name was based on the influence of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops from the ’20s and ’30s. So, we go back to old Louis Armstrong 1920s and we are very influenced by all forms of American roots music.”
Bones plays clarinet as well as sax in the band. Frontman Wierzynski also plays the trumpet on top of singing and playing guitar, and percussionist Malament also plays the washboard. In their live shows, their range of influences expands even wider to include covers of songs from Mariah Carey to Frankie Beverly & Maze, among many others.
“In our mind, it just all fits together,” said Bones. “We’ll play some old ska tunes that we like, then some soul music that we love, and (New Orleans) ’second line’ music and some blues and early jazz styles. And when you look at them, you might see them as one here and one over there. But it feels very connected in our conception, it all kinda glues in a way that it makes sense to us and it makes sense to our fans.”
The California Honeydrops play Wednesday and Thursday at Felton Music Hall, and again Friday at the Catalyst. The White Album Ensemble plays Wednesday and Thursday at the Rio Theatre.