Black Joe Lewis: Tell 'em what your name is!

By Marty Duda

“Pretty bad-ass”. In the short time speaking to Austin, Texas-based Black Joe Lewis, he uses the term several times to describe his horn section in his band, The Honeybears, their live show and his influences. It could also be used to describe Joe himself.

'It's going to take more for me to crack. I just turned 30 so I'm about to be too old to be a rock star.' Photo / Supplied
'It's going to take more for me to crack. I just turned 30 so I'm about to be too old to be a rock star.' Photo / Supplied

Black Joe Lewis' vocals have been compared to the likes of James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Howlin' Wolf, while his guitar playing recalls blues greats ranging from Elmore James to R.L. Burnside. This is all the more impressive when you realize that the 30-year-old bandleader hadn't played a note on the guitar 10 years ago.

"I actually didn't start playing music until I was in my early 20s," Lewis says. "I would go hang out with friends and pick up stuff on the guitar here and there. I just got the idea that I wanted to be in a band because all my friends had bands and nobody had to work. They all played music for a living. I then proceeded to try and get gigs, and I played on my own a lot. It was pretty rough in the beginning because I hadn't been playing that long. Most people start playing when they're really young so I was learning on stage."
The former pawn shop worker believes there are advantages to coming into the music later in life.

"If you're really young and you get really big, you don't know how to deal with being normal. For me, I've just been working day jobs, so if I get fucked over it's just part of life. It's going to take more for me to crack. I just turned 30 so I'm about to be too old to be a rock star."

The sound of Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears is a mix of electric blues, '60s soul and guitar-driven rock. Not exactly what you'd expect from a guy who grew up in the era of hip hop and grunge.

"I started out listening to a lot of hip hop when I was younger," Lewis explains. "Then I started getting into rock. Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana were the first rock acts I started getting into. As you get older, your tastes changes. Right around the time I started playing guitar I started listening to soul and blues. I really started to figure out what the good stuff was."

When asked to list his favourite guitar players, Lewis comes up with a few surprises.
"Ah man, there's tons. I have so many. You know, everybody likes Jimi Hendrix. I like Cheetah Chrome, he played in The Dead Boys. They're one of my favourite all-time bands. Then there's Ron Asheton, Elmore James, Lightnin' Hopkins... there's tons of blues guys who I don't even know their names."

The inclusion of The Stooges' Ron Asheton and The Dead Boys' Cheetah Chrome is telling. The Dead Boys were a 1970s punk band from Ohio whose album title, Young, Loud and Snotty, perfectly summed up their sound. While Lewis may not be so young, his music is indeed loud and carries plenty of punk attitude. A lot of that comes from living in a town notorious for its competitive live music scene.

"There are a lot of bands who live in Austin, there's always somebody to play with. You've got to do something to stand out from all the others because there are so many players who are better than you. You've just got to have something that people will want to hear."

The group has evolved into a seven-piece show band with a full-time horn section. The tracks on their latest album Scandalous find Brown and co-guitarist Zach Ernst fighting for time with the powerful horn section, which makes for exciting listening. So who decides if the guitars or the horns will dominate?

"We don't really think about it," says the soft-spoken Lewis. "On the first record (2009's Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!) we wrote a bunch of the horn lines, but we have a different horn section now. They're pretty bad-ass, so they came up with their own lines. A lot of bands will hire horns out, but we just have them. They're part of the band. One big, happy family", he says chuckling.

Back when that first record was released, Lewis came up with a term for his brand of music: garage soul. It that still relevant?

"That was something that we were saying a while back. Now it's just rock'n'roll, you know."

Brand new, you're retro

The type of retro-soul that Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears make seems to be in vogue these days. This past year has seen artists like Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Aloe Blacc and Eli "Paperboy" Reed travel to Auckland to perform their particular take on classic rhythm'n'blues.

The Brooklyn-based label Daptone has built its roster around veteran soul shouters like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley and Lee Fields. When asked if he considers himself part of the same scene as the Daptone crew, Black Joe Lewis had this to say:

"Those guys are totally doing their own thing. They're on another level. They're great. I feel like we do more of a rock thing. I don't want to be a part of any scene. I just want to do my thing, you know."

That's fair enough, and Joe certainly rocks much harder than the more pop-oriented Eli "Paperboy" Reed, but as anyone who witnessed Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings' performance at The Powerstation last December can attest, the woman can put on a sweat-drenched show of her own.

Those retro-soul fans who danced along to Sharon Jones and plan to get down with Black Joe Lewis will want to check out the latest from Ms Jones.

Soul Time! is the latest offering from Jones and her band. The dozen tunes round up various singles and non-album tracks that haven't had an album release until now. This is no rag-tag collection of cast-offs. Songs like Genuine, He Said I Can and What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes are as powerful as anything she has released. Get on the good foot!

*Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears play The Powerstation in Auckland on Wednesday 7 December.

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