Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears

SXSW Picks 2 Click 2008

Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Black Joe Lewis ladles out all grit, no gravy. He spits lyrics in short bursts of aggression like bricks at glass windows. While his father's favorite singer was R&B god Donny Hathaway, the closest Lewis has come to a sweet soul ballad is the profanity-laced "Bitch, I Love You." The 26-year-old Austin native was less enamored of shucking oysters in the local food service industry.

"I was tired of eating shit every night," barks Lewis. "Zach was like, 'I can throw together a band if you want to try it one more time.'"

That would be Zach Ernst, 21, guitarist for Black Joe Lewis' new eightpiece lineup, the Honey Bears. Borrowing some Dap-Kings retro R&B, Ernst rounded up the Bears after booking Lewis to open Little Richard's performance on the UT campus. Around the same time, Lewis' self-titled debut – a gritty collection of abrasive blues and soul – spun on constant repeat in Ernst's CD deck. A year later, the group has cut an eponymous EP of funky originals and relatively obscure covers by the likes of Howlin' Wolf and Don Covay and has entered preliminary talks with labels like Fat Possum.

"There's no pretense about what Joe does," Ernst says. "He plays that really loud, aggressive style of guitar, and he's a really forceful singer. It reminds me of Hound Dog Taylor and Wilson Pickett. To think that someone was doing that so well and so off the radar in Austin was just totally beyond me."

Thankfully, Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears are no longer casting pearls before swine. Lewis credits recent buzz to the indie rock crowd. "It's made a world of difference, because those are the people that go out to shows," he says. At the group's first show at the Beauty Bar, not exactly the traditional blues circuit, Lewis turned the head of Britt Daniel, an encounter that led to the Honey Bears opening Spoon's West Coast tour last summer. The two bands now share the same management, and Spoon drummer and producer Jim Eno is helping the young soul-shouter cook up a batch of new tracks, including the horn-driven R&B explosion "Gunpowder," which features blazing horns from Grupo Fantasma.

"My dream is to be on the level of James Brown," Lewis says. "I want to be the black Elvis."

SXSW showcase: Wednesday, March 12, 8pm @ Emo's Main

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