Lately, I’ve been on a bit of a blues bender. Gary Clark, Jr, Dave Alvin, Scott Holt, The Record Company. If you’ve been out of that loop, get with the program! Tuesday night brought Austin guitar-slinger Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears to town.
The evening opened with Chicago’s Paul Cherry and his 5 piece band. The Fine Line was about half full when the music kicked off and the audience seemed intrigued as well as bemused. Cherry is a quirky character. The music was an interesting mix of 70’s style yacht rock tinged with pop psychedelia. Using two percussionists along with synths provided a pleasant,buzzy groove that occasionally drifted into Latin rhythms.
Cherry and band seemed excited to be heading back to Chicago immediately following the show in order to embark on their first European tour. All in all, they seemed a rather odd pairing with the headliner but were enjoyable nonetheless.
Patrons continued to arrive and the club seemed to fill up as people moved from the periphery to front and center. It had been awhile since I’d attended a show at The Fine Line. I was pleased by the removal of all the high top tables on the main floor. That arrangement always seemed to put those who wanted to dance and stand at odds with those who preferred to simply sit and listen. Now the more passive can head upstairs while the moshers get the floor.
Black Joe Lewis is first and foremost a master of the Telecaster. The opening number began with a driving boogie beat that built and culminated in an aggressive, distorted solo that excited the crowd. This was immediately followed by In The Name of Love which was more of an R&B, Texas flavored number.
The third song of the evening really got the crowd bumping. This was a real back porch, folky deep blues number that began simply enough before becoming insistent; exploring a riff. Like that opener, by the time it was near its conclusion it had morphed into a long psychedelic jam with Lewis’ guitar as the centerpiece.
About the time I thought I’d begun to figure out the Honeybears, they shifted gears and got down right funky with a new song Soup or Soul. This James Brown styled vocal over a brittle Albert Collins guitar structure seemed to address the frustrations of making a living in the music business. Are you willing to sell a bit of your soul in order to keep food on the table. That seemed apropos with Lewis because he is anything but definable. His music is built on a wide range of seemingly disparate influences. I can imagine industry people trying to move him in one direction or another. Thankfully, he seems to have resisted.
Without question, the audience reacted most strongly to Booty City, a break out funk tune from early in his career. Right before the band started there was a strong ganja odor and Lewis smiled. “I smell what you’re doin’ out there! Maybe send some up here to the band.” I began to chuckle because Booty City is a song about exactly what it sounds like. In a world that lately seems Puritan, overly PC and accusatory it seemed to me a tonic. Let’s all just get in a room, listen to some great music, stop taking ourselves so seriously and have a party.
While hailing from the same home town as Gary Clark, Jr and being of similar age I found myself comparing the two. Both tend to get dumped into that catch all category of blues man. But each has forged his own unique direction. While Clark is more of that classic front man, Lewis is more understated and simply lets his guitar do his talking. Where the former walks over the rock and roll line quite frequently, the latter leans more toward funk and soul. While both are world class, self taught, jam style guitarists Clark employs a wider range of tones and is note focused. Black Joe Lewis has a remarkable right hand that scratches out driving and insistent rhythms.
One thing became clear as the night wore on. The Honeybears want people to dance. Time and again, they flashed classic soul and R&B set to more modern, grinding guitars. This is a young man who picked up a guitar late in his teen years and learned to play it by hanging out at Austin’s underground blues jam scene. But there is no doubt he was spending a lot of time also listening to the likes of James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
That’s what makes him unique. He’s like a big bubbling pot of Texas chili. Everything you need is in there and those who made it down to The Fine Line all shared in the feast.