The ’Bears’ Switch Project

Soul/Funk/Rock ensemble Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears find their voice on Scandalous

Sep 7, 2011 at 9:58 am


lack Joe Lewis & the Honeybears usually get compared to classic R&B, Soul and Blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown and Wilson Pickett — obvious enough touchstones considering the group plays a hard-hitting blend of Soul, Rock & Roll and Blues. 

But when making the group’s most recent album, Scandalous, guitarist Zach Ernst began to see parallels with another group that hasn’t often come up in discussions about his band’s sound — The Rolling Stones.

In a recent interview, Ernst is quick to point out he wasn’t in any way suggesting Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears are even remotely the musical equal to the Stones or even that the band’s music sounds like that British band. But he thinks his group is starting to share a trait that the Stones had as they hit their musical peak in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“Maybe when we were putting (Scandalous) together we were thinking of the Stones a lot and how they would take what they liked from different American musical styles and put it all together, and put a blaring horn song next to an acoustic song, or put a spiritual song next to ‘Bitch,’ like on Sticky Fingers,” Ernst says. “They left a pretty cool blueprint for how to do this.”

What Ernst is essentially saying is BJL&HB is starting to integrate its musical influences into more of a sound the group can call its own, something he couldn’t say about the group’s 2009 debut, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!

“On the first record, I can really trace every song to a few influences, or a few songs we were ripping off here and there, progressions and riffs from this and that, putting it together and calling it a Joe song,” Ernst says. “That’s kind of what a lot of R&B (players) and rock and rollers have done for a very long time, and we’re no different. I think on the new one, we sort of did a little bit better job of burying the lead as far as not really knowing, not even amongst ourselves, where exactly (the sounds) came from.”

Although Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! was a fun and promising debut, Scandalous is a stronger and indeed more

original-sounding effort.

The band’s influences are still obvious at times (note the James Brown-like shuffle in the verses of “Livin’ In The Jungle” or the way the stomping acoustic Blues of “Messin’ ” channels Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf). But one can point to several songs where the group finds a more original — and decidedly contemporary — take on its sound. Take, for instance, “You Been Lyin’” — arguably the album’s best track — which rocks out behind a hard-driving electric guitar line, or “Black Snake,” whose propulsive bass line and honking horns form a unique synthesis of Rock and high-powered Soul.

The growth shown by the group — which also includes singer/guitarist Joe Lewis, bassist/keyboardist Bill Stevenson, drummer Matthew Strmiska, trumpet player Derek Phelps, baritone sax player Joseph Woullard and tenor sax player Jason Frey — is impressive considering they’ve only been together since 2007.

That’s when Ernst, a student at University of Texas in Austin, met Lewis. Ernst was booking the college’s 40 Acres Festival and needed an opening act for Little Richard. He thought of Lewis and booked him for the slot.

Lewis and Ernst struck up a friendship that soon went to a new level when Ernst offered to put together a new, more permanent band for Lewis. The offer came at the right time for Lewis, who was growing frustrated with the lack of progress in his career.

“He had been playing the same weekly gigs for a long time and didn’t have a lot of heat going on,” Ernst says. “There are just only so many times you can play the same 10 songs to the same 10 people.”

Ernst formed the original edition of the Honeybears and

soon the group was making real noise, not just in Austin, but with Lost Highway Records, which signed Lewis and released the group’s debut. Since then, there has been lots of touring, tightening the band chops individually and as a unit, and the writing and recording of Scandalous, which, like the first album, was recorded in Austin and produced by Jim Eno, drummer of the band Spoon.

Now the Honeybears are back on the road and Scandalous is making the shows easier on at least one important level.

“The first record was only a half hour long and we were always kind of having to fill the rest of the set with other stuff,” Ernst says. “So (now) we can definitely fill up the set with our stuff. We’re kind of sick of the old record, so (the set list) is definitely heavy on the new stuff. But we’ll still play a few songs off of the first record and a couple of things to mix it up every night.”

BLACK JOE LEWIS AND THE HONEYBEARS perform Monday at Northside’s Mayday with The Lions Rampant.