Not too long ago, Joe Lewis was shucking oysters at a seafood restaurant in Austin, Texas. He liked to bang out old Lightnin' Hopkins songs at coffeehouse open mics, playing a guitar he bought in a pawn shop where he used to work and getting drunk so he'd have the nerve to get on stage. Now he's the frontman for Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, a rollicking, hard-hitting eight-piece old-school R&B/soul/funk/garage-rock combo whose ferocious live shows and rock-solid first album, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!, landed them on numerous best-of-2009 lists—and making them one of the most buzzed-about old-fashioned rock bands in the country.
The Honeybears first started coming together about three years ago, when University of Texas undergrad Zach Ernst invited Lewis to open for Little Richard at a festival in Little Rock, Ark. Lewis quickly recruited some of his friends—including Ernst on guitar—to back him for that show. Afterward, Ernst encouraged him to get a regular group together.
"We practiced, got gigs, got tight, and here we are," Lewis, who's now 28, says.
"Here" is at the forefront of an emerging R&B revival that includes Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, a revitalized Bettye LaVette (who recorded and toured with the Drive-By Truckers in 2007), and Nashville's dynamite funk/soul group the Dynamites, featuring old Apollo Theatre performer Charles Walker. The Honeybears are a little different—their music is a catholic hodgepodge of styles rather than a direct reference. Lewis and his band fit classic Southern R&B like Joe Tex, funked-out horns a la early James Brown, and Texas garage rock like Doug Sahm's "Mendocino" right next to each other. It's a bastard offspring that makes perfect sense on the dancefloor, even if it seems counterintuitive on paper.
"We're more garage and blues than soul," Lewis says. "If we didn't have horns we'd be a rock band. We play the kinds of music we like to listen to.
"We're not as good as the bands that play that music. Don't get me wrong—the band's great, but we play dirty."
Despite Lewis' humility, the workout the Honeybears have gotten on the road in the last year, since Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! came out in March, has refined their dirty sound into a focused live set. Lewis says the Honeybears' shows are brief—usually an hour, but he says 45 minutes is even better—but they leave everything on the stage. (During a recent run through France, Lewis nearly lost his voice when the band played 20 nights in a row.) Lewis also says he prefers to open for other bands. For one thing, that means he has a chance to hang out before loading out all their gear. But it also means you get an opportunity to show up the headliner. It's a good incentive, he says.
"It's nothing personal, but it's like a game," he says. "It's not a competition, but to me it is. If you don't do good, somebody's going to slide in and take your spot. I want to go on stage and leave 'em on fire. It's like customer service. If you don't treat your customers right, they're not going to come back."
Being on the road with seven other guys for months at a time isn't always easy—riding in a van together for hours day after day, splitting not-much money eight ways. Lewis says there are a couple of benefits, though.
"When you load to go into a show, there's seven dudes there, so half the time you don't have to pick up anything," he says. "It's like built-in roadies. And if anything bad happens you've got seven dudes with you."
They're not making enough money that Lewis can get all James Brown on the band and fine them for, say, shoes that aren't shined. "I don't pay them enough yet," he says.
But it sure beats what they were all doing a couple of years ago.
"I was shucking oysters, and I've had numerous other bullshit jobs," Lewis says. "It ain't never going to be as bad as being stuck in that f--king place eight hours a day. We're all happy to be able to travel and play music and make money."