By Blake Ells
The California Honeydrops leapt to a new level when the legendary Bonnie Raitt discovered their music. Two years ago, the band opened for her at the BJCC Concert Hall and, for the first time since, they’re swinging back through on their own headlining tour. On Saturday, April 28, The California Honeydrops will perform at Zydeco.
Before the stop, frontman Lech Wierzynski spoke about that relationship with Raitt and how it raised the band’s profile. He talked about how he discovered blues and jazz music as a child in Poland and about how important the live show is to his band.
Birmingham Stages: The last time you guys came through, you were opening for Bonnie Raitt. How did you connect with her and how valuable was your time with her?
Lech Wierzynski: She came to one of our shows. There was a song that she wanted to record called “Here Comes Love,” which was a song of ours off the Like You Mean It album. She liked the song, wanted to record it, wanted to meet the band; so she came out to see us play at an underground club—like a warehouse. She came by and chilled out and we got to meet her and she was nice. A year after that, we got the call when she said, “Hey, maybe these guys can open for me.” And we said, “Oh, yeah, for sure.”
On the tour, we got to know her better. She’d come into our dressing room and sing with us when we were warming up and that led to her singing on the record.
Birmingham Stages: Obviously, she’s one of the greatest of all time. What did support from someone like that mean to you guys?
LW: Obviously, there’s a degree of validation that you’re getting there, you know? It’s nice to know that someone that knows music loves you. She’s our number one fan. She loves the band, and that’s been really good for our careers. We were kind of ignored for a long time; we were written off as a party band. Having someone that’s a serious musician say, “Hey, these cats are for real” really raised our level of appreciation from other people that didn’t know about us.
Birmingham Stages: You guys started out playing train stations throughout California and eventually, you sold out the Fillmore. How overwhelming was it to make that leap?
LW: It’s exactly what you said—it’s overwhelming. You’re used to being on the floor with everybody else; especially the way we play. We like to connect with the audience; we like to be a part of the whole thing. That’s an adjustment you have to make—to be up on a big stage away from your crowd. It can be a good feeling, too.
Music and money—art and money—are two things that really don’t make sense together. Because music is best in your living room with just a few people just jamming together. That can be a peak musical experience; just jamming with a few friends and having a dance party at your house, you know? Trying to translate that experience into something like selling out a show at the Fillmore and making money off it is a tricky business. But we try to stay true to the roots of that feeling; of that small room feeling as we can.
Birmingham Stages: You were born in Poland and you created the band in California, but you have a bluesy, jazzy, New Orleans vibe. How did you find that sound within you when it maybe wasn’t really in your surroundings?
LW: I was surrounded by it. My dad listened to New Orleans Jazz; that was his favorite music. Louis Armstrong. Nat King Cole. Those were some of the only tapes we had in the car. That [expletive] was just on repeat, man. [laughs]
Then you come to America when you’re a kid and the easiest way to fit in with the other kids is music, you know? The easiest way to grasp the culture is music. You get thrown in the fire and you think, “How am I going to fit in here?” So you gravitate toward something like that. That’s how I came to love music.
One of my friends made me a tape of the Rebirth Brass Band when I was a kid. I was playing trumpet because I was listening to Louis and Sidney Bachet and stuff like that. So it just kind of came together.
I think I always wanted to do something that felt a little more acoustic; a little more intimate. I tried to put that together with the other influences; with some of the other music that I love.
There was a guitar player named Snooks Eaglin out of New Orleans that would play a lot of Ray Charles with a guitar, and it was cool to see him do this rhythm and blues stuff in a stripped down setup.
Birmingham Stages: Have you connected with some of those bands that influenced you? Have you played any with Rebirth [Brass Band]?
LW: Yeah. We’ve played a bunch of shows with Rebirth over the years in California and other places. We’ve opened for them a bunch of times; we’ve done co-bills with them. That’s an awesome experience because that’s a band that was a huge influence on us in terms of their vibe and throwing a party and having a good time. That second line beat—that’s New Orleans—and that’s been a big influence on us.
Birmingham Stages: You released a live record really early on—relatively speaking—in your discography. Why was that a high priority for you to get that live recording out?
LW: Because we’re a live band, man. That’s where the vibe is; the vibe is live. You can’t fake that in the studio. We wanted people to hear us because that’s what we’re selling—the live vibe. Playing in a studio is alright, but playing a live show is much more fun a lot of times. We wanted to capture that fun instead of slaving away in a studio trying to get something perfect. We wanted something imperfect that’s got a good vibe.
The California Honeydrops come to Zydeco on Saturday, April 28. Tickets are $12 in advance and can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com. The Aquaducks will open the 9 p.m. show.