Austin, Texan blues-rock-soul singer and guitarist Black Joe Lewis returns to Santa Barbara, with his band the Honeybears.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears
When: Tonight, 9 p.m.
Where: Velvet Jones, 423 State St.
Information: 965-8676, www.velvet-jones.com.
For a bit of local back story, new-old rock-soul artist Black Joe Lewis made his Santa Barbara debut at Campbell Hall back in 2011, in the midst of a career upswing which saw him releasing “Scandalous” on the Lost Highway label. That album came on the heels of 2009’s “Tell ‘Em What your Name Is—” which he did. At the time, he was in the process of shedding his band name, the Honeybears, in the interest of keeping the focus on the prominence of his own voice—as both old school style blues-soul singer and guitarist.
Subsequently, he took a sabbatical from the scene, returning in 2017 with the album “Backlash,” followed by last year’s “The Difference Between Me and You.”
Tonight, the Austin, Texan Mr. Lewis returns to the 805, and with the Honeybears moniker intact again. Also intact is his (and their) signature musical brew of rock, blues, soul and echoes of famed soul singers of yore, from James Brown to Otis Redding, to howling and crooning ala blues icon Howlin’ Wolf and soul legend Sam Cooke. Punk edginess also sneaks into the recipe.
Bringing back the band name the Honeybears makes sense: Mr. Lewis’ music relies on the collective powers of a steamy tight band to deliver its brand of goods. And catching the band in a live context, whether a theater or rock club setting such as Velvet Jones, is key to appreciating the Black Joe Lewis experience.
In an interview, the boss himself attested to the importance of playing live, pointing out that “even the word itself—‘live’–says it. It’s the real thing. You just get up there and what you put out up there on the stage makes each show that good, versus when you get in the studio.
“I’ve never had a good experience in the studio yet, but I think the next one will be good, because we’re going to be independent and all that, so we don’ t have anybody (messing) with us. I’m sure the studio can be just as good to you, but I’ve never had the opportunity to sit there and actually tweak on things and just try (stuff) out in the studio as long as I wanted to. That might be just as good, too.”
It was good, in fact, on the latest album, “The Difference Between Me and You.” Recorded in his hometown of Austin, the album boasted producer Stuart (The White Stripes, Cat Power, Modest Mouse) Sikes at the controls—but not too much control. Mr. Lewis said in a statement that this album involved a more “hands-on style of production with, open, creative interaction between the entire band.”
Although he is deeply steeped in music and forging ahead with his band and personal musical brand, Mr. Lewis admits that music was not a driving obsession in his youth. “I started doing it for fun,” he says, “and I realized that everybody in Austin had a band, and some of my friends were touring and making a living at it. I realized I really wanted to do it because I hated my day job. I felt like I would kill myself if I had to work there another year. I dropped out of high school. If the music thing ends for me, I’ll be working in a kitchen at a restaurant, probably.”
Motivated to transcend the dead-end day job life, he was drawn towards music—a mainstay in Austin. How did he break into that competitive scene? “I just figured it all out. I was asking people ‘dude, how do you all get into that?’ I just started tagging along, hanging out with them. I started gigging around on the streets, busking and getting harassed. I worked my way up to some happy hour gigs and played some (crappy) shows there. Then, I just kind of honed my craft, dude.”
This is where the Honeybears, and the anchoring power of having a good band, became critical. As Mr. Lewis says, “when I started this band, I was thinking ‘oh sweet, this is actually possible. I wonder how far this actually go.’ It wasn’t like I found my calling, but it was more like ‘let’s go with it.’
“I wanted to get to where I could quit my day job. I could be happy the rest of my life if I could continue doing that. I’d be happy if I got to be huge, too, but really, my goal is to not go back to my day job.”
Early on, he was listening not so much to what was happening around the Austin scene, but listening up the old masters of soul and blues. Of these, he says, “James Brown probably was the main dude, when I actually figured out how to sing. I used to sing like a little (sissy). I’d be scared to yell.
“I was going to play this Mardi Gras gig in Lafayette and I watched this documentary about James Brown on the way. It got me all pumped up and I said ‘I’m just going to scream my ass off,’ and it worked. Over time, it turned into a singing voice. It took me awhile to find my sound.
“I feel like you play what you like listening to. Everybody wants to be individual, but everybody has their influences. I always want to come out and do my own thing. I never thought ‘I want to be like James Brown.’ But I still have my influences. Honestly, who’s going to do it better than those guys did it back then?”
He picked up guitar at an even later age, shortly before he burst out in public with attention-grabbing albums and a critically-praised set at SXSW in 2009. Regarding his guitar life, he comments that “some people are born with more natural abilities for some things than others. I can only do one pull-up and my little cousin can do fifty of them. It might just be something like that.
“With me, it’s not so much that I feel like I’m a good guitar player who knows a lot. I’ve just kind of learned on the fly, on my own, so I have developed this weird, unique style. A lot of people think it’s because I don’t know how to play and that I’m just getting by. But I like to think I have my own style, too. There is a lot of stuff that I don’t know on the guitar, but I’m able to get by with my own knowledge, my own style.”
And that Black Joe Lewis style, informed by legends of old, seems to be a timeless, replenishable musical energy source.