THE ORIGIN of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears is a well-documented tale, a bit of mythical press bio folklore on par with Bon Iver's wounded retreat to his loneliness cabin deep within the sadness forest. Joe Lewis—indeed black, but sans Honeybears at this point in the story—was no musician, just a man working a dead-end shift at an Austin pawnshop when he discovered an old guitar. He took the instrument home to learn its ways, which he mastered, magic soon ensued, credits were cued, and everyone won in the end.
Well, sort of.
"It was a piece of shit, a really crappy guitar," explains Lewis, hours before he and his loyal seven-piece band of Honeybears take the stage in Memphis. There is great romance and irony in achieving stardom through another guitar player's failed dreams—the musical equivalent of a proposal with a pawnshop wedding ring—but Lewis' ascent can't be credited to a mythical instrument. He and the Honeybears developed a sound (blues, by way of soul, by way of punk rock) entirely their own, and coupled it with an intense live show far greater than even their most inspired peers.
From the start Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears made little effort to hide their disdain for the traditional guitar wankery and limited scope of what constitutes modern blues. Nor did they condescend to the hollow nostalgia of blues tourism, singing of Delta crossroads and handshake deals with the man downstairs. Instead the band quite literally cites Robert Johnson and the Dead Boys as paramount influences—a recent EP features covers of both. They also honed their craft by sharing a stage with Spoon (drummer Jim Eno is their go-to producer), Okkervil River, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and even, on one occasion, Barack Obama.
For them, the live show isn't a necessary evil, a way to recreate their recordings and move some merch—it's everything. "Nobody sells records anymore, so you tour and that's where you make your name. That's where you make your living," Lewis says. "You've got to have a good show. It's not the '90s anymore, it's all about the live stuff now."
Their latest, Scandalous, is a vibrant collection of songs that can ignite even the most lethargic of settings, including the sexual misadventures in "Mustang Ranch," the funky "Livin' in the Jungle," and the self-explanatory bawdy locale known as "Booty City." Lewis is a live wire of a frontman, a dedicated showman who takes inventory (Soul? Check. Super bad? Check.), as he frantically leads his band through sets that cover their recorded output (Scandalous, their 2009 debut LP Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!, plus a few EPs along the way), in addition to covers of everything from "Louie Louie" to a ferocious version of the Stooges' "I Got a Right."
Their devotion to the bright lights and the stage can get out of hand at times, including Lewis' odd ability to shred a guitar using his teeth. (His tip for all aspiring guitar players contemplating such a stunt: "It's pretty safe, unless you're gonna get really drunk.") But for all the dangers the band faces, none are as perilous as rogue microphones. "Hitting your teeth on a really shitty mic stand is the most dentally dangerous thing," Lewis explains. "At this club in Vegas, this fucking mic stand wasn't screwed in right and it went forward and I busted my two front teeth. I went to Canada and got them fixed for, like, 100 bucks." A small price to pay for giving us a live show we're not likely to forget anytime soon.