- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is
Lost Highway Records

With the music world descending on Austin, Texas, this week for the annual South by Southwest festival, it might seem fitting that the Austin band Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears has chosen this week to make its major-label debut. Yet while SXSW is all about new music and the intersection of digital technology and society, Black Joe Lewis is determinedly analog.

Mr. Lewis draws on the influence of the great James Brown bands of the 1960s, the Memphis horn sound, the grindhouse funk of Booker T. & the MG’s and the incendiary delivery of great shout-singers such as Howlin’ Wolf and Screaming Jay Hawkins to create a sound that is completely retro yet vital and immediate.

Mr. Lewis appropriates the mantle of forebears without awe or shame. “I’m Broke” sounds as if it could be an outtake from a “Funky Drummer”-era James Brown session. It opens with a sinister electric piano riff, crisp drumbeat and an absolutely filthy bass line before Mr. Lewis howls, “I’m broke/everybody knows.” A chicken-scratch guitar and a trio of horns join the fray. There’s no narrative arc to the song #8212; it just explodes in a cathartic scream and winds down. At a little more than four minutes, it’s the longest track on the album, but it’s easy to imagine it lasting three times that long in concert.

“Big Booty Woman” is an homage to old-timey antiphonal blues songs such as “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The guitar here is strummed rather than plucked, and the organ replaces the electric piano.

“Sugarfoot” is basically a deep funk bass line paired with Stax-style horn bursts. Bassist Bill Stevenson deserves special praise for the unrestrained, blattering filth that emanates from his instrument. It’s over the top in the best sense #8212; the funk equivalent of Dr. Evil’s iniquitous leer.

Mr. Lewis’ biography would be the envy of many a budding soul singer. His story is that he picked up a guitar at the age of 19 or 20 while working in a pawnshop, taught himself to play and eventually wound up cutting his teeth at open-mike nights in Austin. The band came together with the help of guitarist Zach Ernst, and it eventually attracted the attention of the local rock nobility. Jim Eno, drummer for the indie rock band Spoon, produced “Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!” and plays on several tracks.

It’s one thing to carry a torch for a bygone era and another thing to chart a new path. My guess is that Mr. Lewis will parlay his retro success and eventually put a more original stamp on the music he re-creates with such irreverent affection. For now, his pitch-perfect re-creation of the heyday of funk, blues and soul will do nicely. The band will be in the District soon — opening for the British indie rock band Gomez on March 29 at the 9:30 Club.

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