On a live recording, Maceo Parker, former sax player for James Brown, once said "We like to play happy music. Happy music means you are moving and shaking something automatically." The audience on packed floor for Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears last night likely couldn't have agreed more.
On the road for a spring tour to continue to push their sophomore full-length release, Scandalous (Lost Highway Records, 2011), the Austin-based band brought out old and new fans to shake their ass on the Off Broadway floor. In fact, a nearly sold-out crowd crammed into the South St. Louis venue on Wednesday night for a celebration of 'hump day.'
Dressed in a black leather jacket reminicent of the Ramones classic look, Black Joe Lewis brought more of a punk rock feel to the band's performance. Growling the lyrics at times, his delivery and demeanor was intense as he strummed his red Telecaster. Lewis spoke very little from the microphone as the band stormed through a 75-minute set comprising songs from their two full-length releases. The rest of the septet, the Honeybears, dressed casually in white shirts and dark pants, performed a loose rollicking set that kept the energy in the room high throughout the performance. So high was the energy, in fact, the drummer's glasses slid down his face each song from the sweat rolling from his brow.
In the live setting it's easier to see why Lewis eschews the notion that the band is just a soul revival band. With dirt exhuding from their pores, Lewis and the Honeybears leave a puddle of sweat on the stage as they dress their sound with musical bits from across genres. The group's music, an overall blend of garage rock and R&B, adds elements of soul, funk, blues, and even hip-hop to their sound scape.
From the slow blues of "Since I Met You Baby" to the upbeat soul of "Living in the Jungle," -- both from the new album -- the band moved easily around their catalog like a great mix being laid down.
With his lyrics filled with sexual escapades on songs like "Black Snake," Lewis is modern day Clarence Carter with a sly grin at every innuendo. Upon the opening to "Sugarfoot," the upbeat funk breakdown from their first album Tell 'em What Your Name Is, the energy level in the room climbed further. On this track, Lewis and the group channel the memory of the legendary James Brown and bring the greasy funk with the horn section leading the way.
Breaking his near silence from the microphone, Lewis told the audience, "Since it was Valentines Day yesterday I hope everybody got laid." Then, promptly announced the next song as "Bitch, I Love You" eliciting a good laugh from the crowd.
Toward the end of the set, I spied a couple making out near the rear door of the club. Kissing each other passionately, these two adults, oblivious of the room full of people around them, acted like they were in high school and needed each other's saliva to breathe. The music of Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears gives the listener that sort of reaction. I'm sure there were plenty of other couples in the room that went home and made sweet love.
The band returned for a three song encore that surprisingly included a loose rendition of the Trashmen's 1963 hit "Surfin' Bird." In retrospect this choice isn't as surprising as it may seem. The song, a combination of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons, "The Bird's the Word" and "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow," perfectly embodies the underlying sound of the garage rock laced with heavy doses of R&B. Even in a cover, the band pushes the right button on the jukebox to not pigeonhole themselves.
St. Louis-based rock 'n roll group Warm Jets USA opened the evening by setting the tone well for the main act. Led by veteran St. Louis musician Jason Hutto on guitar and vocals and featuring Christopher Keith on bass and Evan Bequette on drums, the trio brings a powerful dose of rock that rides somewhere between garage and indie rock and falls just below post-punk. Their 30-plus minute set impressed as the band brought an intensity many bands local can't match. Kudos goes to the group as many of the musicians working in the St. Louis scene are much younger.
Between scorching blasts from his guitar, Hutto admitted late in the set, "We are kinda working through some new things...new songs." At the bar after the show, Hutto told me the reason the band had not played out much of late. He said that he has been busy with recording projects for many groups on the local St. Louis scene. A sign-of-the-times-like statement from the one of the engineers and producers about how strong the current music scene is in St. Louis.
Thanks to Lauren Smalley for taking some useful notes for this review. Follow her on Twitter @the_lottery.