Attendees of July’s High Sierra Music Festival have referred to it as the “freakout,” the precise moment when roots-and-blues standouts the California Honeydrops hit their sonic sweet spot and the sardine-packed crowd in the Vaudeville tent – teenage neo hippies, doo-rag-wrapped gray hairs, bikini-clad shoulder sitters – exploded into a frenzied, hand-waving mass of pure musical elation.
“That was one of the craziest things we’ve ever seen,” said California Honeydrops drummer and founding member Ben Malament of the band’s dust-tsunami-of-a-dance-party in Quincy.
This combustive Oakland-based act has been inspiring similar freakouts at numerous festivals over the past couple of years, while gaining steam and notoriety from those gigs with its intensely affable approach to live performance.
However, festivals aren’t necessarily the Honeydrops’ venue of choice; a cozy club is much more their speed.
There are two chances to see the band in its preferred element this weekend when the California Honeydrops perform at the newly minted Rendezvous in Chico tonight and then swing down to the Palms Playhouse in Winters on Saturday.
The shows mark the band’s first return to the area since an April gig at Assembly, and the quintet said they feel the good vibes brewing in the Sacramento region.
Reflecting on a show at Sophia’s Thai Kitchen in Davis, Malament said: “We knew we’d finally broken through when the porch was crammed, but there were just as many people dancing in the street at the same time.
“The Winters show really gives us a chance to open it up,” he added.
Malament and vocalist Lech Wierzynski founded the Honeydrops in Oakland in the mid-2000s, when the group was literally playing its first gigs in BART stations. However, the two go back much further than that, to their days studying music at Ohio’s Oberlin College.
While Wierzynski was exploring his love of early African American music, the ever-worldly Malament was studying with professor Adenike Sharpley and performing (domestically and overseas) with West African drum-and-dance company Dance Diaspora.
“That was really the heart of what I love about music,” Malament said. “You play just for people, to celebrate life, to celebrate death, but you play with all you’ve got (and) you can’t fake it. You have to communicate your drumming to the people, and that’s something we bring with the Honeydrops ... playing in a way that comes out of traditions, out of the basic human feelings.”
The mantra of virtually every musician in New Orleans is nearly identical to those particular sentiments, which is why Big Easy, second-line jazz rhythms and soul-scorching blues are a huge element of a California Honeydrops sound that’s also marinated in R&B and seasoned with organic funk.
It’s also why the group’s tantalizing originals such as “Got the Feeling” or “Here Comes Love” (off of the group’s breakthrough 2013 full-length “Like You Mean It”) can meld so seamlessly with live-show standards such as the gospel classic “Up Above My Head.” So much so that the division between originals or covers hardly even matters anymore.
“Recently just been asking our fans, ‘What do you like? What are your favorite songs?’” Malament said. “Let’s just play what people want to hear. We’re in a time where music is very overproduced and everyone follows the same trend. It’s easy to fall into the same category – we go the opposite direction.”
And fans are willing to follow.
“We go straight to the people,” Malament said. “We like to jump off the stage and we like to play with no application. People say, ‘Wow, they’re jazzy’ or ‘They’re bluegrass,’ because those are the only other genres they see where people do that. But we just like to play.”