Canyons will get a taste of Honey Island Swamp Band
New Orleans’s Honey Island Swamp Band, who will perform a free show at Canyons Resort on Saturday, Aug. 2, came together thanks to a hurricane and a streak of serendipity.
Aaron Wilkinson and Chris Mulé were in a band, playing bass and guitar, respectively, and on tour performing in San Francisco in 2005. The musicians found themselves stranded in the Bay Area after Hurricane Katrina devastated their hometown.
Luckily, Wilkinson also had a mandolin and the two began playing for change on the streets of Haight-Ashbury.
"I had been playing bass professionally for about a decade, but decided to take up mandolin as a hobby before we went to San Francisco," Wilkinson said during an interview with The Park Record. "I borrowed one from a friend and liked it because it was small and I could take it around without it taking up much space."
One night, Wilkinson and Mulé went to see some bands at a bar called the Boom Boom Room and ran into two friends — bassist Sam Price and drummer Garland Paul — from New Orleans.
"We didn’t know they were in San Francisco and it was like this random accident," Wilkinson said. "It turned out they made their way out to Bay Area to visit family."
The four got to talking and figured they could form a band there and then.
"That meant we could stop playing on the street and try to book some shows," Wilkinson said. "So we asked the owner of the Boom Boom Room if we could have a gig and he let us play every Saturday night. We did that until we moved back to New Orleans a year later."
It was the perfect opportunity for Wilkinson to try something new and play the mandolin.
"I jumped into the deep end and started playing, without knowing what the hell I was doing," he said with a laugh. "I still don’t know a lot, but it was a sink or swim situation and it was fun."
In the nine years after the Boom Boom Room gigs, the Honey Island Swamp Band has entertained music lovers across the country and created a solid following.
It has won multiple Best of the Beat Awards from Offbeat Magazine for Best Emerging Artist, Best Blues Album and Best Roots Rock Artist. In 2011 and 2012 the band was named Best Roots Rock of New Orleans by the Big Easy Awards, New Orleans’ most prestigious arts honors.
Those accolades mean a lot to Wilkinson.
"When you live in New Orleans, you get used to playing a gig a day because it’s one of the few cities where you can do that," he said. "When we found ourselves stranded in San Francisco, we didn’t have that. We had to piece things together and that was what started."
Last year, the band released "Cane Sugar," the latest full-length in a series of extended-plays and album releases.
"This was much more mature effort on our part," Wilkinson said of "Cane Sugar." "The other releases we self-produced and the creative drive came from the band itself.
"So with the new one, we wanted to seek out people who were more experienced than we were," he said. "So we enlisted this guy named John Porter to produce the album."
The Grammy Award-winning Porter has worked with blues pioneers Buddy Guy and B.B. King as well as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Carlos Santana and singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.
"We had put the word out that we were looking for an outside producer and someone suggested John," Wilkinson said. "We heard he had come and seen us and was apparently a fan. When we looked at what he has done, we found we loved everything he has produced and wanted to get together."
Working with Porter was a great experience for the band — especially the two main songwriters, Wilkinson and Mulé.
"John was great at making little suggestions," Wilkinson said with a laugh. "He has a great ear and had a wonderful way with his British accent of telling us what we were playing was garbage.
"It was cool to have that person there to come up with ideas or become a tie-breaker," Wilkinson said. "It felt good to let go of the reins and have someone outside pushing us."
When Honey Island Swamp Band plays Canyons on Saturday, the show will be a mix of old and new songs.
"We will draw from each our records and love to play them," Wilkinson said. "We have, in the past year, leaned on new songs from our new record, but we will possibly throw in some new songs that haven’t been recorded, yet, and some off-the-wall covers we like to play.
"The main thing we focus on is creating a different set from night to night," he said. "That keeps it interesting for the audience and interesting for us. I think if we went out and played the same things every night, we would go insane — quickly."
Canyons Resort will welcome the Honey Island Swamp Band on Saturday, Aug. 2, at 6 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://www.mountaintownmusic.org .
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