Do you like those smooth soul ballads? Maybe you like to kick back with your lady, or man, and chill out with the lights low, and the Delfonics singing softly in the background. If that appeals to you, I’ve got a suggestion for you: stop reading this right now. Because to paraphrase Tina Turner, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears don’t do nothing nice and easy.
The eight-piece band, led by the irrepressible Joe Lewis, has come storming out of Austin, TX with their Lost Highway debut, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is. They were a huge hit a couple of weeks ago at South by Southwest, and now they appear poised to conquer the rest of the world.
I’m not big on coining terms, and someone has probably come up with this before me, but the most fitting name I can give to their music is punk soul. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears come at you with the kind of energy and aggression usually reserved for only the most committed punk bands, and their soul groove is deep and fierce.
The most obvious influence here is James Brown. Just check out “I’m Broke” to see what I mean. There are also echoes of Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex. And just when you think Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears might be a one-trick-pony, they come at you with “Master Sold My Baby,” which blends dark Delta blues with a New Orleans second-line beat.
There’s nothing here to tell me whether Lewis is a great technical singer. He is certainly a great soul shouter, but since there are no ballads, and not much in the way of melody, he is not called upon to explore the full range of his voice. He openly admits that he didn’t sit down to write any of these songs. “If I sit down and try to write a song, it sounds contrived. All the songs on this record, I just made up as I went along. I couldn’t do a lot of ’em again if I didn’t have ’em on tape.”
Fortunately, the Honeybears rhythm section knows how to lay down a wicked groove, and the band knows how to play together as a unit, instead of seeking individual glory. The groove established, Lewis adds his stream-of-consciousness lyrics to the pot, and the stew really begins to simmer.
Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is was produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno, who was very pleased with the band’s spontaneity. “We were able to do about 75 percent of the album live, and that’s something that you very, very rarely do.” That immediacy jumps right out at you from the speakers.
The soul revival continues apace.