On the Horizon: Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Austin-based musician Black Joe Lewis’ Lost Highway debut, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! has just been released, and already he seems somewhat reticent to discuss it and himself.

Austin-based musician Black Joe Lewis’ Lost Highway debut, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! has just been released, and already he seems somewhat reticent to discuss it and himself. Perhaps the singer-songwriter and guitarist is trying to quiet the buzz that’s already emerged around his old school, Memphis-driven garage soul vocals, horn- fueled attack, and energized, head-turning appearances at Lollapalooza, South by Southwest, Austin City Limits Festival and CMJ.

Lewis’ retro style is the male answer to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ similar get-down r&b approach, but Lewis’ love of such deep Southern blues masters as Junior Kimbrough and Lightnin’ Hopkins provides an even more dangerous slant. Add a gospel-inspired call and response, crisp, soul-soaked staccato brass, and song titles such as “Big Booty Woman” and “Master Sold My Baby” that won’t win him guest slots on any upcoming Oprah shows. The resulting sweat-soaked sound is edgy enough though to win over predominantly youthful white audiences unfamiliar with the likes of Lewis’ show stopping predecessors such as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave or Wilson Pickett.

Surely his groove isn’t logically in line with that of Spoon (whose drummer Jim Eno produced the new disc) or most of the other bands he supports on the college based festival circuit. But that doesn’t seem to faze him, or even be a concern. “I just try to get the music out there so everyone can hear it, and see if they like it for themselves,” he nonchalantly says. When asked if he’s had more interest from indie rock or blues fans, Lewis simply answers “both.”

Although he sticks predominantly to vocals and original songs, one of the album’s highlights is a knockout, hip-shaking adaptation of the Bar-Kays’ snappy instrumental “Humpin’.” Lewis’ version is dominated by his seven-piece Honeybears band, who nail the pocket as effortlessly as the soul greats who came before. “Humpin’,” like the rest of the disc, is sexy, passionate and raw, especially compared to the slickness of contemporary r&b.

Even though the songs crackle with an energy born from first takes, the restless Lewis (whose two previous albums were self-released) isn’t entirely comfortable with the sterile recording environment, especially if it comes with doing multiple overdubs. “The thought of getting something done the first time and not having to do it again motivates me,” he elaborates. “It’s kind of hard, I’m not much of a studio person.”

Regardless, he and Eno capture an urban, stalking, stray cat roaming the back streets looking for trouble vibe, both threatening, aggressive and even somewhat unhinged. You can just see him down on his knees, begging his woman to give him some, err honey, on the electrifying album closing “Please Pt. Two,” a tune highlighted by his spine- tingling, Godfather-of-Soul- like screams. It’s feral, primal and wild, but not quite as nasty as Lewis had envisioned.

“The sound I wanted was dirtier,” he says. “I like the way it is but I would have liked it even more low-fi.”


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