By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Punk blues/soul musician Black Joe Lewis is apparently a man of few words, but then again, songs like his own "Bitch, I Love You" pretty much speak for themselves. The track, from his self-titled 2006 debut, marries Lewis' foul-mouthed man-done-wrong verses ("Come home late at night/Bitch, you know it just ain't right/Keep making Black Joe blue/Baby, I'm gonna beat the hell out of you") with a melody and arrangement reminiscent of an early James Brown track that culminates in a hilarious tirade—complete with a shout-out to his idol, Lightnin' Hopkins: "Fuck the mojo hand, I got the back of my hand, motherfucker!"
"I like Lightnin' Hopkins, Elmore James, James Brown, Don Covay, Stax...all that shit, man," says Lewis. But his love for blues and soul is also tempered with a passion for the early punk of Rocket from the Tombs and the Stooges, giving his own revivalist music an edge not found in the slick nü-soul of Amy Winehouse or even the funkier tracks of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. "It's not as fancy as Dap-Kings, you know?" he says.
His first album was recorded with the help of members of the now-defunct Austin country band The Weary Boys, who kept things spare and bluesy, but his new combo—the seven-piece Honey Bears—ups the ante considerably, throwing blasting Memphis-style horns and organ fills into the mix with Lewis' biting guitar licks. One listen to their self-titled EP or the furious, Jim Eno-produced track "Gunpowder" ("I said gunpowder, baby/Girl, you know I like it/I said gunpowder, baby/Eat it on my greens now") on the band's MySpace page and you'll see what I mean.
But audiences outside of Austin haven't had many chances to catch the band—for instance, they've never before made the three-hour drive to Dallas—outside of a short West Coast stint opening for Spoon, who invited the group on the road after lead singer Britt Daniel caught one of the band's shows.
"That was really fun, man," says Lewis in typically deadpan fashion. "Played to a lot of people, met some chicks. It was a good time."
Some might find the pairing of an old-school funk band with indie-rock darlings such as Spoon and Okkervil River (for whom the band opens on Saturday) a bit unusual, but Lewis doesn't see it that way, preferring to play for all manner of crowds rather than just preaching to the converted at traditional Texas blues venues like Antone's in Austin. "I can play anywhere, " he says. "I haven't pigeonholed myself into a genre, you know? I like it though, 'cause then everybody gets to check it out."
And when he says "anywhere," he's not kidding. Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears recently warmed up the crowds for Barack Obama at a pre-primary rally in downtown Austin (I'm guessing "Bitch, I Love You" probably didn't make the setlist that night), playing to a crowd of thousands of Obama supporters and making a fan of the senator himself, who called the band "outstanding."
But if you ask Lewis himself, he really doesn't sound all that impressed: "I like Barack a lot," he says. "I thought it was really cool to be able to play pretty much the whole downtown and to see [him], you know?"
Sure, you and I might one day call him next leader of the free world, but to Black Joe Lewis, Barack Obama's just another fan (albeit an important and powerful one). And, bitch, that's pretty freaking cool.