When Lech Wierzynski was a youngster in Warsaw, his parents listened to American music with the volume turned way down and the radio pressed to their ear. In Communist Poland, the American music coming over the airwaves, including Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong, was considered anti-regime.
“If your neighbors heard you listening to American music,” says the frontman for the California Honeydrops, “you could get ratted out and you’d never come back.”
Wierzynski’s parents were journalists and members of the underground solidarity movement. When the movement grew too strong for the government’s liking, the press was shut down and martial law declared. Wierzynski’s father had an agent assigned to follow him around and was eventually given the option to leave Poland or be put in jail, so the family came to the States. The young Wierzynski was three years old.
Wierzynski is now free to sing and play American music—and how he does. The Honeydrops are a beloved Bay Area party band with sky-high energy, a contagious sense of fun, and a strong New Orleans vibe, with funky horns, deep soul, and irresistible dance grooves.
Wierzynski fell in love with the New Orleans sound early, listening to his dad’s Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong records. When he started playing trumpet, however, he didn’t find that same joy.
“In school, you learn jazz and they teach you modern jazz, like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker,” he says. “I was like, ‘You know, I like this, but I really love that music that my dad had on. It had so much fun in it.”
When a friend turned him onto the Rebirth Brass Band, Wierzynski found what he was searching for.
“That’s the music of celebration in the streets,” he says. “That sound just did something for me. It’s made for all occasions. It’s made for the saddest and happiest moments in life.”
Once Wierzynski pinned down his style, he took his own music to the streets, busking with Honeydrops drummer Ben Malament in Oakland BART stations.
“I love playing on the street,” Wierzynski says. “You don’t have to call up a club and say, ‘I want to play at your club for ten people and zero dollars.’ You get to go out there and get straight to the people.”
Although associated with the New Orleans sound, the Honeydrops are not limited to one style. They play classic soul, rhythm and blues, funk, gospel, and more. Wierzynski describes it as a mix of different American roots music and adds with a laugh, “It is what it is, I guess.”
What it is is an unbridled celebration, with band members all over the place and audiences in a near-frenzy state. The members tried using setlists, but they never stuck.
“I’ll start off with a couple of songs I want to do,” says Wierzynski. “Then, after that, I look around and somebody just starts something.”
On past recordings, the Honeydrops have tried to recreate the raw energy of their live performances. On 2015’s, A River’s Invitation, however, the band took a different approach. Instead of going into the studio and pretending they were playing for an audience, they recorded in Wierzynski’s living room and just played for each other. The result is a mellower record steeped in classic soul.
“We always felt like we were trying to force something in the studio that wasn’t supposed to be in the studio,” says Wierzynski. “The album is actually the most live in terms of the way it was recorded.”
Their recordings are almost all original songs, but for performances, they have a deep catalog of tunes to draw from.
For their upcoming three-night, two-venue stint in Santa Cruz, the band will cater to the different tastes of their audience and showcase the depth of their repertoire, playing originals as well as reworked renditions of their favorite songs.
“In the tradition of music we play … you’re not supposed to be playing your own songs all the time,” says Wierzynski. “You’re more just an interpreter of a common feeling.” He adds, “Some of those old songs are just so damn good you’d be a fool not to play them.”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11. Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25. 427-2227; 9 p.m. Feb. 12 & 13. Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $18-$25. 479-1854