Deep inside the airplane-hangar warren of music business offices that comprise Soundcheck Austin, four heads huddle together, talking that secret musician language.
"This one I liked the most because you can dial around on these knobs. It does the most different things. This still has that shred to it, but the distortion is the same. Remember, he used these old-school RCA transistors from little cans. It changes the dynamic when you change the voltage they're running at."
Here in the Austin Amplifier shop, beside a newly completed amp, Black Joe Lewis and Zach Ernst are bonded fast in their love of rhythm & blues. They grin in tandem as amp builders and repairmen Cameron Dennis and Paul Ferguson update the two in pseudo-technical terms.
The week before South by Southwest is a frantic one for most local musicians, and even busier for Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, the soul band to beat coming soon to a stage near you. Lewis steeps his roadhouse blues in horn-heavy dollops of Memphis groove, with Chicago soul, Delta rhythms, and Southern gospel melted in. The sound thumps, sweats, huffs, and puffs.
Young, black, and rooted in Texas rock as much as blues and soul, Lewis hails from Round Rock, also home to the Bright Light Social Hour's Curtis Roush and Jo Mirasole (see "Shoot Out the Lights," Feb. 11), a booming reminder that the burbs are among the finest echo canyons in the universe. Ernst is the kid from College Station with no performing experience who came to town for the University of Texas and found his future with Black Joe Lewis.
Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!, the group's 2009 debut on Nashville imprint Lost Highway – home also to Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll, and Robert Earl Keen – still sells respectably at Waterloo Records. Now, with last month's follow-up, Scandalous, lightning strikes twice.
The custom-made speaker material for the Honeybears' newest amp bears a defiant slogan familiar to all Texans: "Come and Take It!" In 1835, friction in Gonzales between the Texican settlement and Mexican government came down to the little guys standing up to the bigwigs, and the fight for Texas was born.
In 2011, the fight for the blues is less about keeping it alive than keeping it meaningful, even as the last of the bluesmen such as Pinetop Perkins pass on. Perkins was 97 and lived a life that by any standard was gratifying. At 29, Lewis is leading a soul revolution of his own, armed with 24-year-old lieutenant guitarist Ernst. With "Come and Take It" as his personal battle cry, he's mapping his whole life to go and get it.
Winding their way from Austin Amplifier into one of Soundcheck's rehearsal rooms, Lewis and Ernst plunk into chairs, dangling long legs and sprawling sinewy arms. Lewis is friendly and outgoing, yet economical with his words. He doesn't think analytically about the music he makes. With Ernst to parlay with – bandmate, co-author, instigator, cheerleader, mind reader – Lewis livelies himself up in a classic rock & roll partnership.
"Most of the blues I saw when I was growing up was the punk bands – Walter Daniels and young [bluesmen] like Gary Clark [Jr.]," explains Lewis, tipping back his ball cap and stretching his jeans-clad legs. "I had the [Texas] Eastside Kings record. Little Joe Washington. I'm sure there were guys around I couldn't find, but not much of a blues scene, it seemed."
Unbeknownst to him, Lewis had joined an exclusive fraternity of black rockers in Austin over the decades. That short list includes names such as Ed Guinn of the Conqueroo, drummer Bevis Griffin, punk producer Spot, late bassist Byron Scott from the Trouble Boys, and Marc Fort of Bo Bud Greene. Working with harp cat Daniels, he released the Black Joe Lewis & Cool Breeze EP in 2005 (see "Black Joe Lewis: Close to the Bone," Nov. 18, 2005) and felt he'd found his calling. Somehow, the gigs weren't there.
As a University of Texas student, Ernst was a member of the UT Student Events Center's Music & Entertainment Committee in 2007, booking the Forty Acres Fest.
"At UT, I took Clifford Antone's class," says Ernst leaning forward, his elbows on the table. "The first day they gave out the syllabus, a whole semester's worth of stuff, and it was split up by record labels – Sun, Stax, Atlantic, Motown, Chess. I wanted to impress Clifford so much I went through it learning everything I could so I could raise my hand and ask questions.
"When I met Joe, he had a band and I was just a fan of his record. I had booked Little Richard for the Forty Acres Fest and thought it would be a good opportunity to reach out to Joe as opening act. I didn't know he was ready to hang it up, but I did know by all the raw, dirty blues stuff on his EP that he was the only young guy doing the stuff I liked."
Black Joe Lewis' vocal forefathers are easily cited: James Brown primarily, and sometimes Howling Wolf for his moans, or even Wilson Pickett for the croons. Reach a little further back, though, and he's channeling – whether he knows it or not – one of the Lone Star challengers to James Brown's King of Soul crown: Joe Tex.
Music critic emeritus Dave Marsh calls Tex's "raspy-voiced, jackleg preacher style," with its jungle drums, funky bass, and punching horns, the recipe for countless R&B revues from the 1950s through the 1970s. He's "arguably, the most underrated of all the '60s soul performers associated with Atlantic Records."
Before embracing religion and retiring from the stage, Tex toured the circuit endlessly, employing young musicians such as Austin guitar maven W.C. Clark in his band until revues fell out of favor in the late 1970s. The new millennial "soul revival" that conjured Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, James Hunter, and Amy Winehouse, among others, also spilled over locally to the classic sound of Akina Adderley & the Vintage Playboys and younger interpretations by T Bird & the Breaks, Soul Track Mind, and any reunion of the Scabs.
"I went into this record thinking about the Rolling Stones a lot," mused Ernst, "and how they would pool their influences. Like on Sticky Fingers at the end of side A, that acoustic version of "You Gotta Move." And the first track of side B is "Bitch," this horn-driven, big sound. We listened to Exile on Main St. – there's horns on over half that record – and then we realized at some point, 'Why are we trying so hard to learn our chops as a soul band when the Stones were mixing up soul, blues, and gospel, and made something new out of it?'"
That's the secret of Scandalous (see "SXSW Records," March 18), which, like Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! before it, evokes legendary shouters without slavish imitation. Matthew Strmiska's chunky drums, Bill Stevenson's big bass, and Ernst's guitar sting open "Mustang Ranch" while Lewis readies a casual rap about driving by Nevada's famous house of prostitution and stopping by to "get my ham glazed." The brassy bottom that horn men Derek Phelps, Joseph Woullard, and Jason Frey give "Booty City" suggests Edwin Starr's "25 Miles From Home," while "Messin'" strips Lewis down to classic Lightnin' Hopkins vocals, and "You Been Lyin'" invites Dallas legends the Relatives to lay it down gospel-style.
"Making the comparisons of new versus old, the new stuff is not soul – it's not the same," Lewis scoffs. "I feel like we're staying more true to the older style, the original shit, like when they first added electricity to music. These soul revival shows we get put on, we don't fit that mold. The way we deliver it, a lot of people are like, 'What the fuck?'
"I'm not saying it's bad or good, but listen to the Relatives then listen to the Dap-Kings. Listen to Cedric [Burnside] and [Lightnin] Malcolm in the Juke Joint Duo and compare them to any modern blues group. It's not the same stuff. Cedric and Malcolm and the Relatives come from where the music we love comes from. Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside lived it.
"We've always said, 'We just play the music we listen to.' And it's still here!
"You just need to go and find it."
Ernst, on topic as usual, rides shotgun on Lewis' latest riff.
"The tour with [Cedric and Malcolm] really influenced the new record," he agrees. "We'd hit a wall writing the songs and seeing that raw country blues nightly had a big impact on what we were into writing."
That's moving away from songs Ernst once described as being about "meeting girls and getting laid, or being broke and having shitty jobs," everyman topics with universal appeal. Yet life on the road in America inspired Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears in a way they didn't expect.
"We stop at all the roadside attractions because you're driving so long, hours and hours and days and days in the van," explains the guitarist, shifting in the chair and leaning back as he locks his fingers behind his neck.
"We've stopped at the Corn Palace, the Mystery Spot – by far the coolest – the Ball of Twine, the Thing out on I-10. A tiger at a truck stop outside Baton Rouge, Mount Rushmore. The inside of our van is covered with stickers from places we've been, like Prairie Dog Town. It's so much fun though! 'Hey, we got 10 hours in the van, let's find something to look forward to!' And when you're driving in the desert, you see wild stuff."
Lewis sits up, animated, hands gesturing to the roof of the rehearsal room.
"We did this overnight drive between Salt Lake City and San Fran," enthuses the singer. "This is not recommended, really dangerous, 12 hours. So, we're driving, it's late, and we see UFOs. One ball of light in the distance, then over here another ...
"Are those planes?"
"Then you see them in a row, boom, boom, boom, boom! Rotating, hovering. They did their light thing and disappeared. Me and Bill watched it, everyone else was sacked out. Damn!"
He flops back in the chair, as if exhausted by the memory.
"Mustang Ranch from the HBO show was on the way so we stopped there," allows Ernst. "You approach it and it's like a war zone: flashing red lights on the side of the road, like you're going into a prison; huge walls with razor wire. You ring a bell, the gate opens, and security guards comes out to check everyone's ID. Then you go in, and it looks like a strip club ..."
Lewis chimes in.
"... A bar like a hunting lodge. Animals on the wall, taxidermy stuff. All of [Scandalous' "Mustang Ranch"] is pretty much true. That's all I'll say about shit that will get me in trouble with my girlfriend."
He nods firmly and shuts up, crossing his arms on his chest and barely containing chuckles as Ernst elaborates.
"It's laid out like a motel, with rooms down one hall, but you go into this main room and pay a lot of money for drinks, just like a strip club. And whatever was in my mind at 5am to believe I should have a gin and tonic ...
He laughs. "The girls are hanging out ... a few of the guys go back to the negotiation room, the jungle room.
"After 30 minutes, we were like, 'Okay we gotta get outta here.' So we went into Reno. You haven't seen anything until you've been in Reno at sunrise with the walking dead gamblers. A huge dude with no shirt and a Confederate flag tattooed on his stomach leaned on the car and starts talking to Matt about being in prison."
Lewis bursts out laughing and slaps the wood table with his bare palm. Ernst just grins and plays his role as straight man.
"That night, we didn't get to a motel, but we got to write a song about Mustang Ranch."
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