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Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears sell their soul amalgam

March 27, 2009 |  2:27 pm

There are plenty of gritty, explicit songs about jealous, violence-prone lovers and horny-but-clueless boyfriends on the riveting debut album from Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, and its fierce, rich amalgam of primal blues, soul, R&B and funk feels simply incendiary.

The band mines the tradition of firecracker ensembles that backed the likes of James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Sly Stone, and Lewis comes across as a soul shouter of the first degree. Forget neo-soul -- this is "Yeow! soul."

"Our drummer came up with the term 'garage soul' -- we all keep looking for a new term to describe what we do," Lewis, 27, said recently by cellphone from inside the van all eight band members cram into for road gigs. "We're always getting lumped in with blues bands, but we want people to know that's not really it."

Lewis had been knocking around Austin playing more traditional blues until he and guitarist Zach Ernst teamed to form the Honeybears.

Ernst and Lewis shared their passion for a spectrum of roots music styles, in particular the contemporary blues-soul of Fat Possum label artists such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The Honeybears caught the attention of execs at the Nashville boutique roots label Lost Highway, which promptly signed the group and just released "Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!"

"My favorite singers are the ones where you know right away it's them," said Ernst, 22, before handing the phone off to Lewis. "I'm not as concerned about who can hit the highest notes or belt the loudest. When you hear Little Richard, James Brown, Wilson Pickett . . . even rock singers -- [Glenn] Danzig or Morrissey, they can sing just one or two notes and you know it's them. Joe is like that. That's so great, to have a vocalist like that who doesn't sound like anyone else."

In fact, what Lewis sings often takes a back seat to the way he sings it -- or screams, cries, begs and shouts it. It's a fascinating hybrid of old-school blues themes -- the insistent suitor, the cuckolded lover, the repentant cheater -- and rap attitude and graphic description. Some passages are blatantly misogynistic but in that ridiculously exaggerated way that makes "South Park" and Eminem so perversely entertaining.

For Lewis, who says he spontaneously crafts lyrics while jamming with the band rather than laboring over them, it's more about the thrill of competition.

"I just want what we do to be better than anything else out there," he said after Ernst passed the phone across the bus to him. "The guys I idolize, they're dudes you just can't touch. So whoever sounds similar to me and has a record coming out, I just want ours to be better."

One moment Lewis is pleading to get closer to the object of his affections ("If There's a Will, There's a Way"), the next he's voicing a threat of dire consequences for infidelity ("Please, Pt. Two"). The words, however, are often difficult to make out, but the uncaged ferocity of his singing is clear, another instrument in the sonic mix of fat horn licks, stinging electric guitar and lock-tight bass and drum rhythms.

--Randy Lewis

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
"Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!"
Lost Highway
Three and a half stars

Albums are rated on a scale of one to four stars.

ENSEMBLE: Lewis, third from left, and Zach Ernst, fourth from left, teamed to form the Honeybears. Their music is a striking hybrid. Credit: Cambria Harkey