It is a dilemma that has dismayed and befuddled many bands over the course of this long and difficult year.
What does a collective of performers do when there are no more live audiences to entertain — when there are no sweaty, screaming fans calling for an encore, and no crowds to summon that unique energy that arises from the sacred bond between a group of musicians and those who gather beneath the stage?
The answer for the California Honeydrops was deceptively simple. They just kept right on doing what they’ve always done, with a few tweaks to keep themselves and their fans safe.
Perhaps no band has embraced the art of livestreaming and hybrid live performances more than the Bay Area quintet — road warriors who have made their mark by entertaining fans with their dynamic blend of funk, jazz, soul, R&B, and rock sounds. When the COVID-19 pandemic put an abrupt halt to live, in-person shows, the Honeydrops just kept playing, albeit to empty rooms and virtual audiences.
In the past nine months, the Honeydrops have posted more than two dozen live performances to their Facebook pages, featuring various iterations of their five-member group. The shows have ranged from impromptu solo performances by frontman and trumpeter Lech Wierzynski to in-home setups from drummer Benjamin Malament and keyboardist Lorenzo Loera to full-band gigs at empty venues — with bassist and percussion player Beau Bradbury and saxophonist Johnny Bones rounding out the quintet. While nothing can replicate the boisterous atmosphere of a Honeydrops’ show IRL, the band has found success in connecting with their fans digitally.
The virtual concerts began on March 27, after it became clear that touring would not be an option in 2020. The debut performance consisted mainly of Wierzynski essentially messing around in his apartment, but it immediately resonated with the Honeydrops’ significant virtual fanbase. That informal set racked up nearly 30,000 views and some 3,000 fans commented on the performance. Many of the fans contributed to the Spreadin’ Honey tip jar, an initiative created by the group to help fund the band while also donating 25 percent of its proceeds to various charities and nonprofit organizations.
“It was definitely awkward at first,” Wierzynski says. “In the beginning of the pandemic, everybody was doing this livestreaming thing, so we would get on, and there would be like, 1,000 people instantly listening. It took some getting used to, because for so long, we were kind of overly reliant on the crowd to get us going.”
Wierzynski says it took about three months for the band to really adapt to playing their tunes without a crowd, and during that time, the livestreams evolved from a one-man show to an immersive full-band experience.
“Lech started it off with a solo thing, and then kind of cast it over to me and Lorenzo to do our own thing, because we were living together at the time,” Malament says. “And then we passed it to Johnny Bones, who was like making drinks and telling stories during his livestream. Eventually we got the whole band involved and it was just a ton of fun.”
Skipping the Middleman
In hindsight, it should come as no surprise that the band has come to embrace the unconventional reality brought on by the pandemic, considering the Honeydrops’ origins as live performers.
After graduating from the prestigious music program at Oberlin College in Ohio, Wierzynski moved out to the Bay Area in 2004, and some of earliest iterations of the Honeydrops’ “live shows” were busking performances at various BART stations in the East Bay.
“We were just having fun, goofing off and learning how to play,” said Wierzynski. “And really, it was about just skipping the middleman. I think we were tired of getting rejected by club owners or playing shows where the entire band would get paid $20. That was just kind of the nature of the early hustle.”
The band cobbled together enough money from those early busking performances to help pay for rent and tighten up their sound, eventually making the migration to smaller local clubs. The band found a niche in the Bay Area music scene with its unique appreciation of the traditional American songbook, a development that can be traced back to Wierzynski’s childhood.
The son of Polish immigrants, Wierzynski moved to Chicago as a young child, learning to love music by listening to his father’s Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino records. He began playing trumpet and exploring the various strains of Americana, a diverse accounting that coalesced for him when he heard Ray Charles for the first time.
“I heard him and I realized that you can kind of do everything — that you can put all those sounds together,” Wierzynski says. “I realized that I could play a little bit of jazz, a little bit of blues, a little bit of R&B, a little bit of soul. That’s the basis of our sound.”
While at Oberlin, Wierzynski played in a jug band and met Malament, who played with the group on a few occasions, but wasn’t an official member. A couple of years after Wierzynski moved to the Bay Area, Malament followed, joining the Honeydrops and forming the backbone for a band that is now in its second decade together.
During that time, the group has moved from small clubs to national tours, opening for the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs. Before the pandemic shut down live music, the Honeydrops were set to headline the Fox Theater in Oakland for the first time.
The band’s recent surge in popularity can be attributed in large part to the Honeydrops’ outrageous live shows. Wierzynski is as charismatic as they come, mugging for the crowd and acting as raconteur-in-chief between songs, entertaining the fans with quirky tales of life in the band. Befitting their nature as a second line New Orleans band, the Honeydrops embrace improvisation and lengthy, fevered renditions of their studio songs, adding in cover tunes that are transformed by the group’s inimitable style and approach.
That manic energy is captured in the Honeydrops’ latest release, Remember When — Live Volume 3, which came out on Nov. 20. The songs were all culled from the band’s most recent tour, collected from venues spanning the country — from the Fillmore in San Francisco to a stop in Portland, Maine.
“We had all these recordings in the bag and we wanted to shuffle them out eventually,” said Wierzynski. “With the pandemic happening, the timing just worked out to release the album.”
For now, that live album can serve as a reminder to fans of what they can expect when the Honeydrops do return to live performances, something that could happen as soon as next summer, according to Wierzynski. While the general public hopefully awaits the coronavirus vaccine, the return of music in cramped, indoor live settings still seems a long way off, but Wierzynski envisions the band playing a hybrid version of drive-in shows and outdoor concerts.
“I don’t want to run right away into playing indoors anytime soon, but I think we will be playing outdoors — be it weddings, or just house shows this summer,” says Wierzynski, who went on a solo barnstorming tour in October, playing backyards at various friends’ homes. “As long as we do it safely, we can get it done.”
For a band that has made its life on the road, the return to live music can’t come soon enough. Malament has spent the quarantine as a surrogate teacher, handling educational lessons for his 10-year-old, a process that has been inspiring, but also exhausting for a single dad. He said he’s looking for a return to normalcy, and he knows exactly what venue he wants the Honeydrops to play when they get back.
“I want to play the Greek Theater,” says Malament. “I know we can get our fans to fill out that venue. I think that would be an amazing place to show everyone that we are still here.”
Going from busking at BART stations to a 5,900-seat theater would be quite the journey. But if a global pandemic can’t derail their dreams, who are we to doubt them?