As The California Honeydrops took to The Catalyst’s main stage, the house was already packed to the rafters. The acoustic folk trio Steep Ravine opened the show, and 20 minutes after their set ended, the San Francisco quintet along with an accompanying percussionist came to the stage. They set a classy, upbeat atmosphere in the club and brought a studio-level performance, complete with all the makings of a ‘70s soul band — guitar, bass, horns, drums and electric organ.
The group’s performance jumped around in terms of genre, from Delta blues to Motown-era R&B, soul and rockabilly. At the top of their set, they played “This Time,” an homage to brass-and-woodwind-heavy New Orleans blues featured on their 2015 album “A River’s Invitation,” followed by one of the many call-and-responses that the audience joined in on. According to their website, “[The group’s] shared vision and purpose remain: to make the audience dance and sing,” and if this was their main goal, they succeeded one hundred times over.
It’s not hard to understand the group’s appeal. Frontman Lech Wierzynski, the son of Polish political refugees, grew up with illegally imported recordings of Sam Cooke, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, and it shows. He is a charismatic, golden-voiced revivalist with an ear for uplifting and soulful melodies, gracefully switching between guitar, trumpet and voice. His strong sense of balance with the other members of the group — knowing when to step into solo and step back to accompany — stood out as a trait of strong musicianship.
The rhythm section fit together in complete comfort. Saxophonist-clarinetist Johnny Bones, along with Wierzynski’s trumpet, played upbeat melody lines and harmonies, while bassist Beau Bradbury and keyboardist Lorenzo Loera provided a solid foundation of walking bass lines and warm gospel chords for the two to play over. Drummer Ben Malament led with assertive yet playful jazz sensibilities, switching to a louder big band dynamic.
In one of the highlights of the night, the group performed an energetic cover of Wilson Pickett’s 1970 single “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” and not a single person in the front could stop themselves from dancing. The audience — filled primarily with college-age concertgoers — was engaged with the music rooted deeply in the past, and the musicians devoted to their forebears.
That accessibility should be applauded, because The California Honeydrops is first and foremost a group built on an undying love of the classics. The group was so evocative of their heroes during their performance — Allen Toussaint and Sam Cooke came to mind — they sounded like they could fit into any decade. Their virtuosity as musicians made their songs chameleonic and timeless, but their presence as performers made it a show worth attending.
The group was not exempt from humble origins, and came a long way since Wierzynski and Malament’s performances in Oakland BART stations. They have been together for more than seven years and experienced exponential success. Considering their show had some of the highest turnout I’ve ever seen at The Catalyst, it’s safe to say that those who missed it will get another chance to see them again. The show, along with Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins’s Wednesday show and Los Angeles-based surf rock band Best Coast’s Thursday show, was a fine way to kick off the school year and a fitting precursor for the Santa Cruz Music Festival, scheduled for Oct. 10.