PICTURED: Honey Island Swamp Band, from left: Lee Yankie (guitar and vocals), Garland Paul (drums and vocals), Aaron Wilkinson (vocals, guitar, mandolin and harmonica), Sam Price (bass and vocals) and Chris Spies (keyboards). Photo courtesy Aaron Wilkinson
by Marina Dunbar
The New Orleans-based Honey Island Swamp Band will be coming to Newbury Park on Saturday, Oct. 23, as part of the Stagecoach Inn After Dark outdoor concert series. What better way to celebrate the return of live music than with the authentic sounds of New Orleans.
The musicians are excited to be playing again, after a months-long shutdown in touring caused by the pandemic. But COVID-19 isn’t the first large-scale crisis they have had to face. Honey Island Swamp Band was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Future bandleader Aaron Wilkinson was evacuated to San Francisco amid the floods. Soon after, he encountered two fellow New Orleans musicians, Sam Price and Garland Paul, in the same situation. The trio would not allow the devastation of their city to stop them from spreading its joyous music, and after weekly gigs at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room, the musicians got their groove back.
“It started as a side project,” explains Wilkinson. “We were all in other successful bands, but Hurricane Katrina hit and we found ourselves stranded in San Francisco. A friend who owns the Boom Boom Room offered to let us play every Sunday and that’s how it started off; just as a way to keep busy while we were in exile from New Orleans.”
Wilkinson has loved music from a young age. Though not originally from Louisiana, the dynamic music of New Orleans became an inspiration for him.
“My dad played a little guitar and sang in the church choir. He was always fooling around on the guitar around the house, always playing records and we all loved to sing along. I begged for an electric guitar for Christmas when I was 11. My folks got me an acoustic and told me if I stuck with lessons for a year, they would get me an electric. The next Christmas, I got my first electric guitar and haven’t looked back.”
Wilkinson describes his influences as “everything from country artists like George Jones and Delbert McClinton, to southern rock bands like the Allmans or Little Feat, and of course the New Orleans influences, Doctor John and Lee Dorsey and so on. Throw in a little reggae, too. I think when we started off, we were just playing whatever we knew, and I had just started playing mandolin and harmonica, so we adapted all those styles to the instrumentation we had.”
The music of Honey Island Swamp Band has been described as “Bayou Americana,” a clever way to summarize the zestful blend of blues, soul, country, R&B and the many distinctive notes of New Orleans. Band members also bring their city’s local tradition of musical community and engagement to every show they perform.
“Music is a communal thing in New Orleans,” says Wilkinson. “Audiences expect to come dance and sing along, and there is a lot of music in the street, outside the traditional venues, free to enjoy. I think that’s part of what makes New Orleans music and New Orleans audiences different; there is a love and appreciation for all types of music, whether it fits neatly into a certain genre or not. People love it because it’s so freely given.”
As many musicians can attest, the communal aspect of music was challenged by the pandemic. “It’s obviously been difficult because we haven’t been able to travel or even play the normal venue here in town. As a result, we’ve done a lot more small-scale shows, porch concerts and block parties. It’s been tough but everyone has adapted, and there are some silver linings to playing more Internet shows.”
Honey Island Swamp Band proves that music is always a source of strength when overcoming a catastrophe, whether it be a natural disaster or a widespread epidemic. And the members show no sign of slowing down their mission.
“We have two albums in the tank and we’re looking forward to releasing those and getting back on the road to play for some audiences that we haven’t seen in a while,” says Wilkinson.
Honey Island Swamp Band performs on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. on the lawn of the Stagecoach Inn Museum, 51 S. Ventu Park Road, Newbury Park. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2787 or visit bapacthousandoaks.com.