JAZZFEST: Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears

Black Joe Lewis

Anatomy texts might not show it, but the greatest soul and blues music leaves no doubt that the hip bone is directly connected to the heart -- a fact that's driven home in every note laid down by Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. As they prove on their Lost Highway debut, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, the Austin-based combo has the kind of gritty attitude and deliciously greasy groove-consciousness that'd pass muster in the toughest juke joint.

To paraphrase Ike and Tina Turner, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is gives Lewis the chance to play nice and easy as well as nice and rough. He and his bandmates take the latter route more often -- as on the fiery, brass-laced opener "Gunpowder" and the unabashedly horndog anthem "Big Booty Woman." But there's far more than one trick up their collective sleeve, as borne out by the dark New Orleans march "Master Sold My Baby."

"It's weird…people say I come up with all these different kinds of songs, and I guess that's true, but they all just come out naturally," says Lewis, who cites James Brown and Lightnin' Hopkins as two of his bigger influences. "If I sit down and try to write a song, it just 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."

That from-the-gut stream-of-consciousness permeates the disc, with Lewis wailing wildly -- in a voice that's one part Joe Tex, one part Tyrone Davis -- through sweat-soaked offerings like the gutbucket "I'm Broke" and "Please, Part Two" as his bandmates turn up the heat, taking a low simmer to a full boil with turn-on-a-dime precision.

"The thing about the band is that we play with each other, not against each other," says Honeybears' guitarist Zach Ernst. "It's not a pissing contest, the way it is in some bands. We communicate with each other without speaking, and I think that has a lot to do with Joe's attitude -- he has an amazing ability to just draw people in. For a lot of people, the blues is a museum piece, but Joe brings it into the moment."

If not for a twist of fate, Lewis might never have gotten up on stage at all. Growing up in the small town of Round Rock, Texas, he was more likely to be found on the football field than in the band room -- but landing a job in an Austin pawn shop put him at a (shall we say) crossroads in life.

"My dad and my uncles listened to soul and blues when I was a kid, but I never really took much notice," says Lewis. "When I was about 19 or 20, I was working in this pawn shop and all these guys would bring in guitars. One day, I started playing around with one and took it home and started teaching myself how to play."

Buoyed by the encouragement of friends, Lewis soon gravitated to the fertile open mic scene of his adopted hometown, where he performed as a solo artist, a period he now laughingly recalls as "horrible…I was usually too drunk or too scared to put on a good show, but people kept asking me to come back."

While he eventually put together a band with a solid lineup, Lewis couldn't capture the mojo he was looking for and was seriously considering retiring from music in his mid-twenties -- until Ernst entered the picture.

"I was on the [University of Texas] programming board and we'd booked Little Richard to do a show and I immediately thought of Joe," says the guitarist. "I heard he was down on music and was woking at a restaurant shucking oysters, so I approached him as a fan -- and Joe ended up playing the show with his old band."

The plea worked, the gig was explosive, but also a partnership was born. Shortly after that gig, Zach formed a band around Joe and the rough and ready Honeybears' were born. Four weeks later, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears played their first gig. Their stylings quickly drew attention from local tastemakers -- like the Austin Chronicle, which marveled at the singer's ability to "spit lyrics in short bursts of aggression like bricks at glass windows" -- and fellow musicians like Okkervil River and Spoon, both of which tapped him and the Honeybears to hit the road as an opening act.

"Joe's a really special, really natural performer," says Spoon drummer Jim Eno, who thought enough of the band to lend his production skills to the new disc. "We were able to do about 75-percent of the album live, and that's something you very, very rarely do."

The spontaneity was immediately evident on the Honeybears' self-titled EP -- which spotlighted the band's controversial, tongue-in-cheek concert staple "Bitch, I Love You" -- and is even more at the fore of Tell 'Em What Your Name Is. To hear Lewis tell it, however, they've only scratched the surface of what they're capable of.

"The way I look at it, I have to step my game up every day," he says. "I look at it as a challenge. It's great that we've gotten noticed, but we've got to keep those people interested and bring more people in. If you don't keep moving forward, nobody's gonna care -- and I'm gonna make sure people really care about this band."

MoPo (aka Robbie Kowal) is one of America's most versatile, experienced and flat-out joyous party rockers. His decade long mission is to 'put the party back into the party', and to connect the casual music fan with the hard core dance music mavens; proving that music is more than just beats. San Francisco’s bootleg indie remix partypusher, is known for a rare ability to play exactly the right music for the moment and an expertise with a wide variety of genres that he seamlessly melds into a coherent blend. Since breaking out as a rare groove Dj in the 90's he has spent the 21st Century using eclectic club styles, break beat, trip hop and tech funk as a backdrop for his genre-bending experiments. From a near religious love of funk and hip hop, to a lifetime study of rock and roll to a massive aptitude for latin, reggae and other outernational formats, MoPo incorporates bits and pieces of music culture into electronic edits that slam the dancefloor. As a backdrop, he creates, edits or chooses only the biggest baddest breaks, hooks and drops to create a sound that truly slams. To the dancer, MoPo is a breath of fresh air, often transforming a room into collective song or crowd chant that connect the audience to the DJ.

These abilities have seen him preceding, following or tagging with a who’s who of breakbeat heroes like Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Icey, Cut Chemist, Grandmaster Flash, James Lavelle, Bassnectar, DJ Vadim, Tipper, Kraak & Smaak, Aquasky, Fort Knox 5, Z-trip. He’s also been among the first DJs to play many a rock festival including an unprecedented 6-year run at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and the first DJ sets ever at Gathering of the Vibes, High Sierra, Berkfest, Caribbean Holidaze, Mid Atlantic Music Experience, and Rothbury festival. He even played at Govt Mule’s legendary “Deepest End” show, called one of the Top 10 shows of the Decade by Jambase. A live turntablist for the indie techno circus The Mutaytor, MoPo has sat in with Parliament-Funkadelic, Galactic, Rebirth Brass Band and BLVD. He has opened for live music legends like James Brown, Maceo Parker, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, Femi Kuti, Sheryl Crow, Spearhead, Jurassic 5, Isaac Hayes, Blackalicious, and Pendulum.



SunsetSF and Aquarium Drunkard present a two show super soul throwdown at One Eyed Jacks in celebration of James Brown's birthday. The early show will feature NYC soul superstar LEE FIELDS & the EXPRESSIONS. The late show will feature Texas soul sueprstar BLACK JOE LEWIS & THE HONEYBEARS. SunsetSF's own MOTION POTION will be on hand throughout the night to drop a collection of the finest James Brown-related music all night long...

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JAZZFEST: Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears with Motion Potion

Saturday, May 4 · 11:59 PM at One Eyed Jacks - New Orleans