R&B, race relations, and rap: Black Joe Lewis and the League of Extraordinary G'z, plus Ginny's Little Longhorn
Black Joe Lewis Unchained
"That's nothing new," says Black Joe Lewis, referring to the dirtier, guitar-driven, garage R&B sound of his new album Electric Slave, a clear departure from the clean vintage soul of his last two albums. "If people heard what we were doing before Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! and Scandalous, this sounds like that."
We're kicked back on separate couches in Lewis' living room, passing a pipe and discussing music with an NFL preseason game on mute.
"Those two records didn't really sound how we do live," he explains. "They were cleaned up a lot to sound like every other soul revival kind of band."
Joe won't talk shit. When I ask about the drama around Honeybears guitarist Zach Ernst and drummer Matt Strmiska quitting, he politely declines, citing some litigation that no one wants to discuss and henceforth only refers to them as "dudes who left the band."
He does admit that until Electric Slave, he's never made an album he's happy with. The Jim Eno-produced sessions for his two Lost Highway Records albums were a "constant battle" over style, he says, where his opinions got overruled, his guitar work was squelched, and mixing was sometimes done behind his back.
"There were times when I should've put my foot down, but things were working so I went with it," he shrugs.
Electric Slave feels like a new beginning.
"We're sounding more original. We've got new members. It's the first time we've got to go into the studio and I didn't feel like someone was fucking with me. It was uninhibited and sounded good."
Lewis' Howard Zinn-meets-Star Trek worldview becomes increasingly evident on new tracks like "Skulldiggin," which hints at media mind control, while "Vampire" chastises the police's No Refusal policies. "Dar Es Salaam" imagines that "aliens come to Earth and see how fucked up we treat each other. They don't have money or politics, because they don't need it. Knowing something bad is going to happen here, they offer us a chance to go back to Utopia with them."
When I ask Joe if he ever considers Gary Clark Jr.'s skyrocket to fame and wonders, "How do I get that?" he rolls his eyes.
"I've known Gary around town for a while. I think he's fuckin' badass. The thing I don't like is people always try to compare us. I just think Austin's small and we're the only two well-known black dudes playing rock & roll, so everyone lumps us together."
We share a laugh over my question seeming racist, but I persist: What about that level of exposure?
"I don't care about fame," he says, taking a long pause to consider his future. "What I really want is a bunch of land. I'm always on the Internet looking at land deals. I can't afford it yet, but I'd like to buy a 700-acre piece of land and hunt for my own food."
League of Extraordinary G'z Call Out the APD
Local all-star rap crew League of Extraordinary G'z, enraged by what they perceive as unnecessary killings by local police officers, have released a single called "A.P.D." that indicts its namesake for reckless use of deadly force.
"The department needs to hold these officers responsible so people feel like the APD is on their side, not at war with them," warns Greezo, one of the lyricists featured on the track.
"If I murder someone, I'm going to the pen and probably death row," he contextualizes. "At worst, an officer who kills an unarmed person might lose their job."
"A.P.D." was penned in 2009, the day after 18-year-old Nathaniel Sanders was killed by a police officer (revisit "Nathaniel and Li'l Nate," May 29, 2009), but never released until now. Recently, Larry Jackson Jr.'s killing gave it renewed relevance (see "Point Austin: Broken Record," Aug. 2).
"This issue is timeless in Austin," says G'z rapper Lowkey. "We could've dropped it right now or a year from now when it happens again."
No stranger to police brutality, Lowkey was tased repeatedly by officers after a performance at Emo's in 2008 as he was walking away from a dispute with a bouncer. He was never convicted of any related crime. Being shot by the APD remains a reasonable concern for all the members of the League, he says, as well as their family and friends.
"As an artist, you can't just jump on any social cause," says rapper/producer Reggie Coby. "But if something really affects you, there's a responsibility to speak up,"
"This is something I have to think about every time the law is behind me," adds Lowkey.
League's long-awaited debut album, #LeagueShit, comes out in October.
A sign on the door of Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon reads "Closed for remodeling. Reopening soon."
Operations have halted at the longstanding Burnet Road honky-tonk, which hosts Chicken Shit Bingo on Sunday evenings, a popular event in which you gamble on the location of a hen's defecation.
Last weekend, I found Ginny's a ghost town, the only vehicles in the lot being rust-eaten, antique flatbed pickups. The chicken coup had pellets in the feeder, but not a bird in sight. The tiny, century-old orange and white brick building with its sheet metal steeple looked more like a quiet old church than the crown jewel of Austin dive bars.
Figuring Dale Watson, the venue's staple performer, would know what was going on, I called up the local outlaw to get the lowdown. Turns out, he's personally assisting his friend Ginny with some necessary plumbing and electrical repairs, and he expects the bar to be back up and running in two months. He said they'll use this opportunity to make some other improvements including sprucing up the ladies room, upgrading the sound system, installing credit card terminals, adding pinball machines, and hauling in a nice vintage jukebox.
Little else has changed since former waitress Ginny Kalmbach took over operations of the former Dick's Little Longhorn Saloon in 1993.
"It's still going to feel like Ginny's," Watson promises. "We're not going to do anything to change that."
Good, because that place has charm coming out the chicken's ass.
› Thai Spice, whose outer wall on the Drag bears Daniel Johnston's iconic alien frog mural, will soon be renamed "Thai, How Are You?" – a solid pun winning out over another local eatery, Coat and Thai. The restaurant's new owner even wants to enlist Johnston to paint an additional mural inside. The original was commissioned by Sound Exchange records in 1993.
› Direct Events, owned by veteran Austin concert promoter Tim O'Connor, filed for bankruptcy last week, brought on, in part, by the unsuccessful revamping of the Austin Music Hall, which was repo'd by a lender last year. "We call this putting a company out of its misery," confirmed representing attorney Michael Baumer. O'Connor said DE's demise matters little to him since he runs all of his business ventures as separate corporations, including Two Lawnmowers, which continues to produce concerts for the Backyard at Bee Cave.
› The Punkaroos, led by Swine King singer Dottie Farrell and featuring original Dicks rhythm section Buxf Parrot and Pat Deason, plus guitar slingers Mark Kenyon and Todd Kassens, regroups at long last for a Planned Parenthood benefit at Infest on Saturday. "This is a cause worth reuniting for," offered Parrot.
› Okkervil River's hastily announced tour kickoff show last Thursday drew an epic line of pasty, 35-year-olds in black-framed glasses that stretched down Red River and sold out Stubb's intimate inside stage. While I was denied access, Michael Corcoran tells me they played copious material off Will Sheff's new nostalgia trip, The Silver Gymnasium, out next Tuesday.