Music » Music Stories

Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears turn soul on its head, while Boyz II Men's St. Louis show spawns two views of vintage R&B

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Black Joe Lewis is the black sheep of a soul revival led by accomplished veterans like Sharon Jones, Bettye LaVette and Charles Walker. He's young (27), has never had anything close to a hit — "Bitch, I Love You" is his most notorious tune — hails from Austin, Texas, and tours with indie-rock bands like Mates of State, What Made Milwaukee Famous and Spoon. He's only been playing guitar for five years, and while he has heroes — Don Covay and Lightnin' Hopkins — he and his eight-piece band the Honey Bears know that they're a garage group playing soul and funk, with no pretensions beyond rocking that funk as hard and loose as they can.

Lewis recently finished a record (which was produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno) and will likely sign with a major label named after a Hank Williams song. He filled B-Sides in on how he got to wherever he is today.

B-Sides: What gave you the idea to pick up the guitar?

Black Joe Lewis: I just started learning. Then I saw some friends who had bands, and they didn't have to work. You know? I'm still improving because it hasn't been that long. That's pretty much it.

You should be a lot worse than you are.

It came pretty easy to me. I don't know why. I like Don Covay. I have other guys I like. But there's no one I would compare myself to, you know? I don't know, man. I'm not technically that good. I try to play with my rhythm, more than notes.

What was your first band?

Black Joe Lewis and the Holden Brothers. They were brothers named Holden. I did that awhile, and everybody wanted to do their own thing, go to school, whatever. After that was Black Joe Lewis and Cool Breeze. It was a learning thing for me. I didn't sound that great yet. I don't want to say that. The band just wasn't that good, never really practiced. We played Sunday night and shit, playing the same songs for a year. I met Zach [Ernst], and we started the Honey Bears a little over a year ago. He went to UT. He was on a committee for the 40 Acres Fest, and they were bringing Little Richard to town. He got me to open, and that was going to be my last show. I was tired of the band. But he knew some guys from school and shit, some of his friends, and that was pretty much it. That's how I got this band.

Austin isn't the first place I'd think of for a band like yours.

Everybody plays the same shit. You know what I'm saying? The blues guys try to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then you have the indie-rock thing, that's the biggest thing here right now. Then you have all the country guys. I like it. We're the only ones who sound like this. There are other bands popping up who are doing soul. But it doesn't sound like us. We don't really have a sound that can be copied. We're all mediocre musicians.

That's a good thing?

I think so. We're more like a punk-rock band than a soul band. It's not cleaned up. I mean, I guess we're a soul band, but we can't play like those guys. That's how we get our own sound. We don't know every note, so we can't cram all that in. Somebody was saying, Do you see a revival with Sharon Jones? But we're different.

Do you ever regret writing "Bitch, I Love You"?

Actually, my friend wrote it. It's fun to play. There were a couple tours that we didn't get taken on because of that song.

Do you ever think your audience, which is based in indie rock, is getting off on the irony of the whole thing?

I don't know what they like about it. I don't care as long as they keep coming. I think people like it because it jams out. And indie rock can be kinda slow, but that's what's big. We could just keep playing little juke joints and never get paid. But I want to be in a market that's big. I'll take what I can get.— Roy Kasten

9 p.m. Thursday, July 31. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $10. 314-773-3363.

Boyz II Brits
A little-known provision of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, was the last-minute addition of a clause that ensured British musicians would be permitted to repackage and resell American R&B to unwitting Americans in perpetuity. As there was no R&B in 1783, this has always struck me as an incredibly forward-looking move by the British negotiators. But how else do you explain why one of pop music's oldest trends endures?

Consider for a moment the career of Philadelphia's Boyz II Men, which touts itself as the most successful male R&B group of all time. That's based on record sales surpassing 60 million, but it's also true that many critics have given the group up for dead. Recording two cover albums in four years can do that to an act, but it's the second of those — a collection called Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville, USA, which was released late last year — that is of particular interest.

As its title implies, the disc takes a spin through the Motown vaults and reinterprets such greats as "Just My Imagination" and "Mercy Mercy Me." Despite the presence of American Idol's Randy Jackson as producer, the classics are treated with respect — live instrumentation, no sops to hip-hop, and even the presence of the horn section from the Dap-Kings, one of America's own homegrown young R&B acts. But while it sold respectably, the release generated mostly yawns amongst the thinking set.

Not so, on the other hand, with the parade of young British chanteuses who have appeared on our shores to hosannas on what seems like a near-weekly basis over the past year — beginning, of course, with the spectacularly troubled Amy Winehouse, but also including the likes of Duffy, Adele and even Lily Allen. All of these women, to a greater or lesser extent, draw on the same trove of '60s soul influences that animated Hitsville, and all have come up with winning singles, even if they'll likely never sell 60 million records collectively. In the wake of their ascendance, however, the notion that Boyz II Men — who just offered the same sounds and an almost-identical aesthetic — is a washed-up oldies act is intriguing, to say the least.

Of course, since Boyz II Men applies that aesthetic to actual oldies, instead of originals, the perception has some basis in fact. So consider, then, the case of Sharon Jones, a former Rikers Island prison guard who leads the Dap-Kings and makes the most authentic-sounding vintage R&B around. To compare Jones to any of the aforementioned British chanteuses would be doing them a grave disservice, as you can (and should) hear on any of the three magnificent albums she's released on the tiny Daptone label (2007's 100 Days, 100 Nights is the latest).

But Jones is fifty years old and black, barely scraping the bottom of the Billboard charts. She might be wondering why we ever signed that treaty, too. — Dan LeRoy

8 p.m. Friday, August 1. Live Off the Levee, Soldier's Memorial Plaza. Free. 314-434-3434.

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