Though it’s no easy feat, over the last several years Honey Island Swamp Band (HISB) has risen amongst the musical ranks in New Orleans to become favorites both in the Big Easy and at tour stops across the country. Their self-dubbed “Bayou Americana” style is a gumbo of its own, full of influences from New Orleans and locations across the Gulf Coast, combining elements of country, bluegrass, Southern rock, gospel and reggae, among others.
HISB’s on-stage collaborations with fellow Big Easy players (including several members of Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, whom they will play some dates with this fall) is a common aspect of performing in the city, according to singer Aaron Wilkinson. Those musical connections are part of what helped them form in the first place, albeit across the country.
“New Orleans is very much a community of musicians. You can be playing in a dive bar somewhere and George Porter or Ivan Neville or one of your idols will walk in—Dr. John—and literally come pick up an instrument and sit in and play with you,” Wilkinson—who also plays mandolin, guitar and harmonica with HISB—stated. “That’s part of the culture here.”
A Pensacola native (he moved to New Orleans in 1998), Wilkinson spoke to the Inweekly from New Orleans after the band returned home after a string of dates on the West Coast, including two nights in San Francisco at John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room.
Aside from being a legendary venue, the Boom Boom Room also holds the distinction of being where HISB was essentially born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In the summer of 2005, Wilkinson and HISB guitarist, Chris Mulé, were playing and touring with musician Eric Lindell in his native California. With no homes to return to after Katrina, the pair decided to stay in California and soon encountered a few other displaced musicians from back home.
Garland Paul—now HISB’s drummer—and bassist Sam Price, who both evacuated New Orleans after Katrina, ran into Wilkinson and Mulé in San Francisco. The foursome, who all knew each other from performing in New Orleans, picked up a weekly gig at the Boom Boom Room.
HISB took their name from marshlands east of New Orleans, which is where all of the founding members hail from and/or were living pre-Katrina (keyboardist Trever Brooks, from Marianna, Fla., joined the band in 2010). Wilkinson said getting back to the city was never far from their minds.
The band members moved to New Orleans in 2007, where they began picking up gigs together and within a few years, regional awards.
“We’re essentially a bar band. We work hard, play long shows, play hard, and have fun, and I think people kind of cheer for us,” Wilkinson stated of the band’s popularity and reputation for playing some of the liveliest shows around.
In 2011 and 2012 HISB was named “Best Roots Rock of New Orleans” by the Big Easy Awards, and Wilkinson said while he can’t be sure, he hopes the band’s democratic approach to songwriting and performance are a part of the appeal that has garnered a steadily growing notoriety and fan base.
“We try to collaborate as much as possible because we all believe as a band that when you’re able to incorporate other people’s ideas, you tend to end up with a song that’s a little bit more universal, as opposed to something that’s just a product of your own head,” Wilkinson said.
And after producing their first several albums themselves, HISB widened their circle with their fourth album, “Cane Sugar,” released in July 2013. They enlisted the help of Grammy Award-winning producer John Porter, a New Orleans resident and fan of the band who had previously worked with artists including B.B. King, Santana and Ryan Adams.
“We really felt that to take a step forward, we needed to get another party involved…and let go of the reigns a little bit,” Wilkinson said. “We just felt really comfortable with him.”
“Cane Sugar” added to HISB’s accolades including “Best Roots Rock Band” and “Best Roots Rock Album” at the 2013 Best of the Beat Awards. After a year of touring in support of “Cane Sugar,” Wilkinson said he looks forward to returning to Vinyl Music Hall for a second time in that period. He is excited to see a downtown venue succeed and add to the opportunities for musicians locally—including HISB’s.
“I’m really happy to see that come around for Pensacola and for the music there, because there are great musicians in Pensacola all over the place,” Wilkinson said. “Having more places to play means I can play there more often, and that’s a good thing.”
HONEY ISLAND SWAMP BAND
WHAT: Honey Island Swamp Band with Post Pluto
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox