I remember first seeing J.J. Lewis, aka Black Joe Lewis, about three years ago, but he wasn’t onstage; he was shucking oysters at a prominent Austin restaurant and market, Quality Seafood. I envied his job then — he’d shuck some oysters, then shuck another and eat it. Heaven. And I envy his job now — which has gained Lewis popularity and positive attention. But he’s just so cool about it, so mellow. An up-and-coming Austin bluesman, with influences ranging from James Brown to Otha Turner to Rocket From the Tombs, Lewis is becoming a big name on the Texas music scene.
Lewis was born in Tucson, Arizona, and moved to Round Rock, north of Austin, as a child. He first picked up a guitar at age 20, and over the next few years Black Joe Lewis became a near-household name in Central Texas. Then in 2007, he recruited the seven-horn-powered Honey Bears: Zach Ernst, Matthew Strmiska, David McKnight, Ian Varley, William Stevenson, Darren Sluyter, and Eduardo Ramirez.
Ernst (guitar) and Lewis met first, and Ernst, a student at the University of Texas, organized the rest of the Honey Bears by rounding up friends from class. Fittingly, their first show together was at a U.T. house party.
When Lewis and the seven Bears perform, asses start shaking — or maybe they’re just high on the horns. And the horn section is tight, but not too tight for grooving — synchronized head-bobbing commences. Who can blame them? And with Lewis, now a promising star on today’s blues horizon, anything goes. What was once funk and soul can easily become rock ’n’ roll. On his cue, the pace of the band’s bluesy beats increases, eventually erupting into a musical fusion, which may or may not return back to its original form.
At shows, the Honey Bears wear matching dress shirts and slacks, while Lewis sports jeans and a T-shirt. Good thing attire has nothing to do with his hold over the audience – it’s his raw soul shouts and aggressive guitar style. Lewis is such a mellow guy in person, it’s startling to see his high energy onstage, though his relaxed way still somehow shines through. Talking with him off stage, it’s hard to believe that such a laid-back guy can take over an audience with such force. But he can, and he does.
Varley’s bluesy keys and the Honey Bears’ raw horn wails provide the perfect backdrop for Lewis’s classic-rock guitar style and James Brown-doused vocals on songs such as “Gunpowder.” And “Bitch I Love You” proves Lewis can write
(anti-)love ballads, too. His raspy screams on “I Don’t Mind” summon blues legends of the past, but his own growling groove makes the emotion ring through.
That old-school/new- age mix is what caught the attention of Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Jim Eno, who dropped in on one of the Bears’ funk-infused blues sets at Beauty Bar in Austin. “We ended up playing with them a couple of times, and that kind of got everything to take off,” Lewis says.
The Austin musician is modest when discussing his success. “We’re definitely getting better gigs than we used to,” he says. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Lewis’ growing musical fame has not led to fortune just yet; he still works at Quality Seafood four days a week delivering for the restaurant, not shucking. This is, of course, in addition to his rising rock-star status, which he describes as a second job and another source of income. The group has recently signed with Lost Highway Records, which will release the band’s self-titled four-song EP later this month and full-length album in March.
Steve Balser, aka DJ Scuba Gooding, one of the founders of San Antonio’s Super Soul Shakedown, first heard Lewis & the Honey Bears during SXSW 2008: “Their sound really caught my ear, and when I headed to the stage to pay closer attention, I recognized Ian Varley, the pianist from one of Texas’ best jazz outfits, the Drop Trio. I realized that these guys must mean business.” So he invited the group to be the first to shakedown in ’09, which will mark the Honey Bears’ first time performing in SA.
Three KRTU DJs started the event last year, hosting quarterly parties to introduce San Antonio to the best live soul from the South. And the Bears “fit the bill perfectly, both on stage and on the air,” says Balser, who hosts Super Soul Saturday on 91.7 FM, where Lewis & the Honeybears have garnered airtime as well as local attention. “We continue to get a lot of great feedback when we play their music,” he adds.
Lewis, performing in SA for the first time, is looking forward to the vibe of a new place. “It’ll be cool if it picks up,” Lewis says. “I’m tired of going to Dallas and Houston, and we’d like to collect another Texas city.” •
Super Soul Shakedown with Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears
9pm Sat, Jan 17
2718 N. St. Mary’s