Badass. That was the word uttered by at least two different people to describe Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears after the band opened for Lucero last Thursday night at the Hawthorne Theater. One of the people with the reaction was my plus one for the evening, a friend who has been eager and anxious to see the Austin, Tex. band again since we both saw the group open for Spoon at MusicfestNW in 2007. The other person who used the same expression was an acquaintance we bumped into later who, though he hadn't even attended the show and had never heard of the artist, nevertheless had the same response upon hearing a mere description of the band's sound.
The magic of the sound of Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears contains equal parts James Brown, Otis Redding, Van Morrison, and countless of the great Stax Records legends. Consider all that and then chew on the fact that the band's debut record Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!
, released earlier this year on Lost Highway Records, was produced by Jim Eno, Spoon's drummer. In other words, think of anything with horns and wicked sharp yet tasteful guitar and organs, fat rhythms and, of course, soulful singing and filter at least parts of it through the lens of the last nearly 30 years of college/indie rock and you have an of an idea of what to expect.
Except not really. Because while all that may be well and good when you read about it, it is, as usual, the live experience that counts. What is it about live music? Why do we feel we can know a band so much better when we finally see them actively making those noises we've only heard on recordings at home? And what is it about that extended period of waiting to see an artist whose music you love and then finally having the chains of waiting released that can leave you feeling so utterly satisfied?
With the tease "you've seen the 7 wonders of the world," the band was introduced by a member of the headlining act as "Lucero's favorite band," and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears delivered a thoroughly engaging and consistently enjoyable nearly hour long set featuring most of the stand out tracks (e.g. the whole album) from Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!
. A record, incidentally, which in addition to being one of the best releases of the year and my personal album of the year is, essentially, the working man's blues.
While all the members of the band brought their A-game it was their lead singer and impetus, Black Joe Lewis, who drove the car. Dressed casually in a Little Joe Washington T-shirt and black jeans, Lewis, who, before the band fully existed, opened for Little Richard, best represented the spirit and feel of the band with his strutting and growling and hooting and hollering. What a presence. What a voice.
And what an absolutely ace backing band. In a further reflection of the steez of "indie rock" seeping in, most of the members wore glasses and a few had beards. That's not as important as it is amusing to mention. Composed of seven members in addition to Lewis, the integrated (but, in a reversal of some historical instances) mostly white Honey Bears consist of three horn players, an additional guitar player to Lewis, as phat a rhythm section as you could hope to expect, and an expert Roland VK-7 operator.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be mere inches from Otis Redding in a small club early in his career way back when? Would you have known what a privilege it was to see legend—to see genius!—in its relatively nascent stages? Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears have mastered many arts, but Thursday night reinforced the indisputable fact that their live show, with its indefatigably compelling nature, is one of them.
The band both built up and semi-relaxed the atmosphere throughout its performance before closing with a knock-down, drag-out, leave-them-wanting-more (“Encore!” yelled an audience member) feast for the ears that was reminiscent of of a Sunday morning spent at church. Who needs church, though, when there's Black Joe Lewis?
Despite sound issues (there were cries from the crowd for "vocals up!") that tainted a little of Black Joe Lewis' genius, somebody should still alert Booker T & the MGs that their legacy lives on. Somebody whisper at Sharon Lewis & the Dap-Kings to watch their step.
It is a bold statement to say that few working bands in America today leave you as utterly satisfied as Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears live, but it is a statement that has to be made because I think it is a statement that happens to be true.
Vocals up indeed.
Black Joe LewiSpace
Photo courtesy of Black Joe Lewis