Austin Soul

Black Joe Lewis rocks his retro R&B sound to new heights

Black Joe Lewis is more than willing to take the time to evolve his sound over the course of a few albums.

His band, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, are just starting the process of making their third album and Lewis says the band is settling into a new line-up and the best batch of songs he's ever crafted.

"I think we sound better than we ever have," Lewis says.

And the dichotomy for Lewis is that a lot of the old blues, funk and soul LPs that lit up a portion of his musical taste have the reverse trend. When it comes to  old bands from back in the day, the early stuff is the best, Lewis says, specifically citing early James Brown material like Please Please Please.

But for the Honeybears, the first releases ere all about nailing down the sweet spot in their funky rock-soul sound.

"It took awhile to figure out what we want," Lewis admits.

Lewis had become a regular on the club scene in his native Austin, Tex., prior to launching the Honeybears. But Lewis only picked up playing guitar when he was in his late teens, working at a pawn shop.

After teaching himself some basics, he began writing music and playing, forming or joining several acts along the way, including two iterations of a band called Cool Breeze. The second Cool Breeze also included blues/garage punk madman Walter Daniels. He also would occassionally jam with the Weary Boys, an Austin roots act.

Lewis says he mostly learned how to play guitar on stage. After four or so years playing mostly punk rock clubs, he began to put together the Honeybears.

The first challenge was putting together a rhythm section in Austin, a city filled with songwriters and aspirant frontmen.

"There's always a ton of guitar players here," Lewis says.

Around the time, he had resumed listening to soul music more often and decided that he wanted a project with horns in it.

The band is currently a six-piece - a power trio with three horn players.

Blues in the vein of Lightnin' Hopkins and Fred McDowell still served as the bedrock. Lewis says much of the first Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears' album contines material from the Cool Breeze era, but with added horns.

"It's kind of like the same stuff I had always done," he says.

The decision to use horns has now become a signature part of the band. In fact, the horn section has now become an essential part of the band's identity, Lewis says.

"People go nuts for horns. They definitely add to the songs," he says.

And the band's success, which has led them to put out two albums on the Lost Highway label and a long touring trek with the Dave Matthews Band, as made it so the Honeybears have become the strongest part of Lewis' musical identity.

"It's the only project that ever did anything," he says.

The band is finally getting ready to write the follow-up to their 2011 album Scandalous. The band's just breaking in a new drummer. Once this current tour wraps up, making album three will be the band's main occupation. The band already cut three initial tracks with producer John Congleton.

"It's been really nice to get back to work," Lewis says.

That leaves Lewis to both guitar and vocal duties all the time, which he says he prefers. He admits he's not a flashy enough guitar player to leave vocals alone, or vice versa. 

"My strength is doing both," he says.

The band currently is without a label, as their deal with Lost Highway was just for two albums. While it's too soon to have set release plans, Lewis says he wouldn't mind having full control over releasing it.

"It would be nice to do it on our own," Lewis says. "Hopefully it'll be out before the end of the year."

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears w/ Snake Island play Friday, February 15th at the Waiting Room Lounge, 6212 Maple St. Tickets are $13 in advance and $15 day-of-show. For more information, visit onepercentproductions.com.

posted at 07:58 am
on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

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