Reviews > Shows
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears at the TLA
Photo by Selector Marx
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
Theater of the Living Arts
A seven-piece ensemble from Austin, Texas, Black Joe Lewis & Honeybears bring a uniquely contemporary edge to the classic sound of funk and soul that is creeping its way back onto the scene. In an exciting musical moment of neo-soul (populated by acts like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Mayer Hawthorne, Fitz & the Tantrums, and Raphael Saadiq), Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears distinguish themselves with a James-Brown edge, a sense of power and energy that threatens at all times to tear down confines like genre, influence, and expectations. Black Joe channels the vocal exuberance James Brown and the rasp of Howlin’ Wolf, while the Honeybears play like a road-tested rhythm and blues band, showing both chops and stage presence beyond their years. While nodding to the sounds of Memphis, New Orleans, and Harlem that provides the backdrop for their sound, this band explores new, forceful territories: they might very well be to funk what Green Day was to punk in the early nineties: a kick in the ass that rejuvenates, reinvents, and expands.
That energy was on full display Saturday night on South Street, where Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears simply rocked the cradle of Philadelphia soul. Opening the show as they open their wonderful new Scandalous album with “Livin’ in the Jungle,” the band made clear their intentions of leading a full blown dance party. The song burst with even more energy than the explosive album version, while the band wasted no time getting into their full groove. The three-piece Honeybear Horns—looking always dapper in black pants, white shirts, and skinny black ties—swung in unison and seemed to put every ounce of their wind into their horns. The baritone sax of Joe Woullard boldly anchors their flow, while tenor saxophonist Derek Phelps is clearly the energetic wellspring of their exuberance. The song flew by as the audience did their best romp to keep up. The James Brown cover “I Don’t Mind” immediately—if only momentarily—slowed the proceedings down a bit. The song captured all that is new and exciting about this band: where James Brown’s version is soulful and sweet, Black Joe’s on Saturday was powerful, distorted, and aggressive.
After the brief reprieve in tempo, the show’s pace became nothing short of riotous. The band followed “I Don’t Mind” with a fierce three song run of “Black Snake,” “Boogie” and “Ballad of Jimmy Tanks,” each with more force and power than the last. “Black Snake” saw Lewis singing into a distorted bullet mic the horn section trading solos. To be sure, the band was never short of stage antics: guitarist Zach Ernst and bassist Bill Stevenson played off each other from opposite wings of the stage, each taking responsibility for leading the revelry of his side of the audience, and often coming together with Black Joe at center stage to concentrate their energy. The entire band shared the antics as they worked their way to the stage floor during “Boogie’s” slow bridge, bursting up as the pace livened. For his part, Black Joe remained the steady frontman. In an unassuming blue shirt and black cap behind a bright red Telecaster, he rarely left his microphone or did much directing of the band, exuding instead a sort of confidence in his crew, like a silent leader with unwavering trust in the skills of those around him. The onstage party raged while he remained its launching pad and focal point. The band grooved all night primarily as a united force. There was little of what one might call a solo, and only the occasional breakdown or bridge where the music become intricate or narrowly focused.
That pace slowed only a couple of times, and was for the most part an all-out rocker to which the audience responded with high revelry. The call-and-response of “Big Booty Woman” elicited eager participation, and the funkiest tunes like “Booty City” and crowd favorite “Sugarfoot” stirred a dance party that seemed eager to burst the TLA’s doors and take to the night air of South Street.
The main set closed a mere hour after the band took the stage, and a raucous four-song encore wrapped up the show only fifteen minutes later. Eschewing the all-night marathon shows familiar to funk bands, Black Joe Lewis & Honeybears opted instead for tightly focused efficiency, delivering a powerful punch without grey area or downtime. The same is true of the songs, which progressed with clear shape and direction, and ended with album-like timeliness. Nobody in the sweaty crowd seemed eager to leave after the band exited the stage, but neither did they seem disappointed in the concert’s brevity. This show was a full-on sprint, and this band seems entirely uninterested in sacrificing any power in order to conserve energy for a longer night. With one solid blow, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears left their mark on South Street and then piled into their van to go make the next city bounce. Theirs is a funk roadshow of unrivalled energy and power.
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