There aren’t many bands that can make a sleazy tale of infidelity sound harmless and cute. But that’s exactly what the California Honeydrops, the Bay Area's own swing New-Orleans-jazz powerhouse, do with “When It Was Wrong,” from their 2010 album Spreadin’ Honey. “You knew I had a woman, and I knew you had a man,” frontman Lech Wierzynski croons with enough charm to make even Ted Cruz blush, "but one look was all it took, girl."
Not that anyone should be surprised; Wierzynski has been walking a fine line between the dirty and the delightful for years.
The son of Polish political refugees, Wierzynski discovered his dad’s old New Orleans jazz and soul records as a kid, and he was immediately drawn to tracks like Louis Armstrong's version of “Basin Street Blues” and Nat "King" Cole’s “Cheesecake.” As a high-school student in the D.C. suburbs, which he recalls as “pretty horrifically boring,” he would take his parents’ car into the city and jam at after-hours clubs.
Even though he was drawn to jug-band, jazz and swing music, Wierzynski still embodied a punk ethos. When he moved to Oakland and had trouble getting gigs, he simply started playing on the streets. It was the fastest way to get heard, and get seen. “I never wanted to be part of the system,” he tells me when we talk recently. “You don’t want to give me a gig, then f--- you then, I’ll go play on the streets and make just as much money.”
Wierzynski fell in love with the independence of playing on sidewalks, at BART stations like Ashby, MacArthur and Rockridge, and the Castro Muni Stop. The “most rewarding thing about it is you catch people by surprise, bring a little life to their day… [you’re] giving out free smiles,” he says.
And people responded well. Soon, the Honeydrops, including a rotating cast of horns, drums, piano and bass, got a weekly gig at the Berkeley pizza mecca Cheeseboard. It became their launching-off point, where they honed their skills; the restaurant later hosted a fundraiser for their first album, Soul Tub!, released in 2008.
Since Soul Tub!, Wierzynski, along with his ever-changing ensemble, has released two more LPs, their fan base has grown rapidly from a few BART passerby to ecstatic festival crowds screaming along to every word, and they’ve toured the U.S. and Europe repeatedly, performing with the likes of B.B. King, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint.
Now, in the midst of a tour across the United States, the Honeydrops return to Oakland’s New Parish for a three-night run. “No place like the West Coast to play music,” Wierzynski points out, his voice rising with excitement. “West Coast people are free, love to dance, love to go crazy.” And he more than matches them: as the crowds belt along, Wierzynski, his sweaty hair flying around his face, howls all the big choruses, then gets slinky for innuendo-laden lines like "Oh, won't you save all your pumpkin pie for meeee, girl?" on a track called, no surprise, "Pumpkin Pie." His grin never leaves his face.
But even after three full albums and countless performances, the band still hasn’t abandoned their busking roots. Don’t be surprised to see them out front, before or after the show, blasting their horns right into your face. At a bare minimum, Wierzynski says, the band will get off-mic at the end, and play at the edge of the stage.
His goal? To "keep the real spirit of music alive.”