Old-school soul in Honeybears’ tracks

Hip shakin’, leg kickin’, bass thumpin’, horn blowin’, voice screamin’ – the essence of soul, funk and blues. The likes of James Brown, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Aretha Franklin have all reserved highly acclaimed spots in the time-honored traditions of these genres, but these folks may need to make some room for the rising talent of Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears.

Hitting the Austin, Texas scene in 2007, Black Joe Lewis and gang have won over crowds in the live music capital of the world – i.e. Austin – as well as in Chicago at Lollapalooza. After signing with Lost Highway Records and breaking out at this year’s South by Southwest Music Festival, the band’s debut album Tell ’Em What Your Name Is! topped Waterloo Records’ Top 50 Sellers List – an impressive feat indeed due to the prestige of this nationally renowned Austin record shop.

Their debut album follows a self-titled EP that includes the track “Bitch I Love You,” which Filter Magazine dubbed as this year’s Valentine’s Day anthem. With the critical success they acquired through the EP, Black Joe Lewis and gang knew it was about time to release a full album. They hired Spoon’s drummer Joe Eno to produce the record, a friendly gesture to a fellow Austin group and a wise choice, as Tell ’Em What Your Name Is! has swooned music lovers of all sorts. With a searing horn section, gritty down-home guitar and a hell-bent voice, the eight-piece combo comes at you full force, hiding nothing.

Transcending the limits of soul and blues, the group’s drummer dubs the sound “garage soul,” and appropriately so. Each track is a rawly crafted combination resembling a sound that could only be produced if, say, Sly Stone collaborated with Stevie Ray Vaughn. Especially noteworthy is the ferocity with which Lewis delivers his vocals. This kind of edge is what truly sets artists apart from the rest of the masses. I mean, if you have opened for both Little Richard and the current president of the United States (yes, I do mean Barack Obama), you deserve some hot press.

To choose only a few tracks to highlight would not do this album justice, but a noteworthy tune that stands out is the opening track, “Gunpowder.” Cutting in with a searing blues lick on the guitar, “Gunpowder” commences without any reservation. The brass section blares out accompanied by a soul-infused bass line to give way to Lewis’ penetrating voice. The cut feels exactly like a live show’s opening number, automatically hooking the listener. The tune transports you back to the ’60s in the Apollo Theatre, where the likes of James Brown defined a generation of music. While the lyrics don’t always make sense sense, i.e. “I know you got me rich / I sprinkle gun powder on ya,” Lewis’ yelling and gusto easily compensate. Furthermore, Lewis breaks into a guitar-heavy, climactic mood, which I can see bringing down the house at any rock or blues club.

In contrast, “Big Booty Woman,” a memorable roadhouse tune, exhibits a grittier vibe as a result of its infusion of acid rock and blues. Opening with an energetic guitar riff, the number comes in full blast with raucous percussion and soulful organ. But as the instrumental section at the beginning subsides, Lewis’ voice breaks through in full stride with call and response verses reminiscent of old bluesmen. Though the verses may be relatively soft and cool, the instrumental sections fully make up for any lack of noise by blaringly cutting through and slapping the original riff right back in your face. All of this is accompanied by the organ, which provides the acid rock texture. Like “Gunpowder,” “Big Booty Woman” exhibits a live feel that makes you want to move uncontrollably. The lyrics make you feel as if you are walking down Beale Street in Memphis absorbing the blues-infused scene.

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears may not be a name that you will hear in reference to popular music anytime soon, but their reputation through this album and their live shows will assuredly make them into a staple of the American roots scene. If you feel like listening to music that makes you both believe in the power of soul and blues and want to jump up into the air and yell “I believe, baby!” then this is the right album for you.