The California Honeydrops live at the Crystal Bay Club on New Year’s Eve – an interview with Johnny Bones

by Will Houk

Over the past ten years, the Oakland-based California Honeydrops have recorded seven successful albums but the Honeydrops have a well-established reputation for dynamic and memorable live performances. The 11 piece ensemble is known for a rootsy, jazzy, funky, “New Orleans Vibe,” but there’s more to the story. Nevada Capital News musical arts reporter Will Houk recently had a chance to chat with the band’s sax player Johnny Bones about the band and its ability to ignite a live audience.

Listen to an interview with Johnny Bones …  The California Honeydrops have a pair of upcoming gigs at the Crystal Bay Club on Lake Tahoe, December 30 and 31. Listen to an audio interview here.

Will Houk (WH): Tell me a little about the band.

Johnny Bones (JB): “The core five of us that have been doing it the last six years is our band leaders, Lech Wierzynski and Ben Melament on drums. Those two are the co-founders of the group. I joined the group about 10 years ago; Johnny Bones playing saxophone, and Lorenzo Loera plays keyboards and Beaumont Bouvier is on bass.

“The five of us have been kind of hustling and doing the band and touring and home shows and all this the last almost six years. Then we kind of expanded the group over the last two years with touring. We have Leon Cotter joining the horn section, playing clarinet and saxophone, and we use a couple different percussionists on the road. We use Gary Kehoe or we use a friend Scott Messersmith from Colorado on different tours.”

WH: The band draws on a variety of musical sources, I asked Johnny if he could tell me about some of their musical influences.

JB: “We draw from a lot of a lot of blues sources, a lot of different New Orleans music over the years. We have a big New Orleans influence even though none of us … well, Scott our percussionist, he’s from there, but the rest of us are not from there. We all love that music, and that’s part of what united us, so we have influences of like ‘50’s New Orleans like ‘50s/60s Huey “Piano” Smith type of music influenced us a lot.  We do some feels with our grooves that are similar to that or Fats Domino feel… we’ll also go into like Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint type of music as far as influences and then into like later music like rebirth brass band more modern New Orleans music, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, actually Treme Brass Band we like that group a lot.

“So all of those different and also way back. You know we do a lot of early like Lech our bandleader play some great Louie Armstrong, trumpet type stuff really influenced by Louie and loves Louie, and we do some real early New Orleans music, so a lot of different eras of New Orleans music have influenced the group, but other music as well.

“All kinds of different blues music has influenced the group I mean when you think of blues, you have a lot of different regions you have like West Coast 50s Los Angeles kind of blues to Roy Milton type of stuff Charles Brown type stuff you have Chicago type of blues, or you have a lot of country blues and guitar centered blues, and I mean, just a whole bunch of influences. I don’t know I could go on and on.”

WH: The band released a live album this year called “Honeydrops Live 2019.” It was recorded at different live shows around the world. I asked Johnny if he could talk about the recording of this album.

JB: “A lot of our live shows our sound engineer, Jake Metalli does our records and we originally met him through doing studio recording, and he became our live sound engineer. So he’s full time with the band all the time. He’s set up a system to record our shows on the road. It’s pretty consistent. And then we just went through some different shows as a group and try to find … we’re very spontaneous as a band, so even though we have some things in our songs that are set in stone, there’s a lot of room for them to be spontaneous with the crowd and with Lech our bandleader.

“He might start something different and go a different direction somewhere in a song, maybe the verses are different, or maybe a call and response with the crowd or maybe a solo that’s usually shorter is longer because someone’s in a really good place and we just kind of feel what’s happening and what’s working in the moment as a group.  So we found versions of songs that just seemed like they had a little extra spark to them. Maybe the band had extra special groove on them. Somebody took some nice solos, maybe the singing was really cool that the crowd is really excited, something that was happening that seemed like it was really making the song work, and we put those together on that live record.”

WH: The group has a knack for drawing people in during their live performances. I asked Johnny about the band’s ability to engage an audience.

JB: “We really like to interact with the crowd, so, pretty early on we are talking to the crowd and we’re getting the crowd singing along or singing stuff back and clapping along and dancing. It’s like a group experience with us. So you come with an open heart and an open mind. You can just watch the band you can, but I think people tend to get drawn in and enjoy that group experience that we create, and that’s just part of our thing.”

WH: The Honeydrops tour extensively and will be hitting the road again next year. I asked Johnny about upcoming projects.

JB: “In January, we’re doing the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. I think we’ve done five or six of those. That’s a great community. It’s so fun. We get on there and there’s all these bands and all these lovers of music and lovers of the blues and we play some sets and then we sit in with people and they sit in with us and then we do some jams late night on the boat. So that’s January. I’m looking forward to that. We always go to Colorado a lot. We have some great shows out there coming up in February, and up and down the coast. And then we’ll be arranging a couple tours around the country. We’ve been just building up all these fan bases around the US and it’s really fun to show up in New York or Chicago or New Orleans and have all these people come out. We used to go there, when we were building it up and there’d be 50 people. Now you go and there’s 800 people come to a show who like what we do and are happy to see us. It’s really, really cool.”