No matter how hard some try, living in the past is impossible. Retro fetishism is destined to peak at a theme-party level of authenticity. The present, in its unyielding rush to the future, is, inherently, a rejection of the past. But sometimes our iPods beg to differ.
Upon its release in 2008, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ first proper full-band LP was received as it is: a hearty throwback to James Brown soul and a horn-fueled horn dog’s rock ‘n’ roll trip to Funkytown. Song titles like “Humpin'” and “Big Booty Woman” — or “Bitch, I Love You,” the band’s debut single — made their intentions known before the first note was ever struck.
And while perhaps rowdier than their peers, the Honeybears and their R&B bottle rockets fit an emerging trend of backward-looking and forward-thinking soul revivalists. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings ascended to fame by writing and recording as if 1965 never went away. Even alt-country rabble-rousers Lucero drenched their 2009 album 1372 Overton Park in fat slabs of Memphis brass.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears are, it might seem, part of a movement. “I would say that that’s definitely something that’s been going on,” says lead guitarist Zach Ernst. “I don’t think we’re doing exactly what the other groups are doing, but if we can win some fans through that association, that’s something we’ll take.”
But it’s not necessarily where the band feels at home. “We did a tour with [blues duo Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm] that ended the first week of March, then came to South By Southwest, and we did a set with Sharon Jones and Raphael Saadiq and Mayer Hawthorne, and we felt like we fit in more with [Burnside and Malcolm].”
And that makes much more sense than it seems to at first blush. On record, to say nothing of their live presentation, the Honeybears borrow as much from the blues’ impassioned, lascivious, and pained refrains and from rock’s reckless abandon as they do from the polish and poise of big-band soul. “As opposed to trying to rehearse a ton and trying to come up with more complicated horn parts,” Ernst says, “we thought we’d embrace what is our strength, which is being young and jumping around and playing our guitars really loud.”
Though Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is was an overt nod to James Brown, Ernst says the band is working on a new, more rock-centric direction for its follow-up. “Listening to something like Exile on Main Street,” he says, “there’s horns on well over half of that album.” So the Honeybears are following their ears wherever they go, guided by Lewis’ flexible, expressive voice.
“Joe’s vocals kind of tie everything together,” Ernst says. “We found that there’s a lot more that he can do with his voice than maybe any of us thought.” On Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is, we hear Lewis swinging for the rafters with clipped, throaty shouts and brassy, declarative verses on “Sugarfoot,” singing wiry blues on “Master Sold My Baby,” and swaggering through the talk-sung “Get Yo Shit.”
Another constant for Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears is energy. Much of their recording is done live in order to capture the on-stage spirit, and much of the band’s material finds its way into the audience’s ears well before it ever makes its way to a studio. “A lot of it is definitely road tested before we take it into the studio,” Ernst says. “Joe is definitely all about getting the song out there in its rawest, earliest state just to gauge if it’s good or not.”
But in this age of live tweets, album leaks, and YouTube bootlegs, Ernst says bands have to be a bit more careful about what they put out there ahead of an official release. “You definitely don’t want to give away everything,” he says. “You don’t want live or raw or rough recordings of the whole record out before it’s ever recorded.”
So the end result is something more spontaneous. Some songs that will populate the band’s sophomore effort have been around for years; others were born just prior to recording. And then there are those, like “Master Sold My Baby,” that don’t find their way into regular live sets until long after the album is released.
But far from a gang of anal-retentive artistes protecting their wares lest somebody actually like them, the Honeybears’ approach is much more casual. “We don’t write a setlist, and we don’t try to plan stuff out,” Ernst admits. This band only wants to please its audience.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ wild, impassioned soul ‘n’ roll is a strong brew on its own, but it takes a receptive audience to really bring it to life. And that’s what makes it timeless. “We try to make it high energy and like a sweaty rock ‘n’ roll show,” Ernst says. “We like to see people dancing. We like to get people standing up and moving.”