From his 2009 arrival with Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, Black Joe Lewis's brand of punked-up R&B was a welcome counterpoint to the new generation of by-the-book soul revivalists. He was the bastard child of James Brown and R.L. Burnside, and although 2011's Scandalous was even better, it somehow seemed out-of-step with the blues-rock takeover launched by the Black Keys' Brothers.
Black Joe Lewis has made a career out of kicking out the jams, and his latest, Electric Slave, is no different. This is a thick, swampy monster of an album, rife with distorted riffs and howling vocals, a kind of sludgy hyperventiliating blues-rock that injects verve into a tired genre and, perhaps, reinstills one’s faith in the healing power of rock and roll. It is, in brief, a terrific record.
After working hard to cultivate a dedicated fan base through a pair of blues-drenched, garage rock studio albums and tireless tours featuring one blistering live show after another, Austin, Texas’s Black Joe Lewis are unquestionably aiming for the fences on his third full-length release, Electric Slave. While Lewis shed the familiar Honeybears from his band name, he’s still got a trusty and talented cast of characters surrounding him, and the same spirited, guitar-fueled energy continues to drive at the heart of these emphatic numbers. The songs occasionally have a bit more polish and overproduced sheen to them, but Lewis’ impassioned vocal delivery and frequently spellbinding guitar riffs are just as filthy and infectious as they have always been, just now they are festival tested, arena sized, and stadium ready.
Joe Lewis and his then-named backing band The Honeybears (a cutesy name that they’ve shed with the arrival of this record) once made an appearance on late-night UK music variety stalwart Later… With Jools Holland in 2009, playing a brand of accessible yet somewhat restrained call-and-response blues-rock to a studio of curious and passively enchanted middle-aged Brits. But also in attendance that night, as YouTube rips of the performance attest, was Joss Stone, who looked annoyingly gleeful and lacking self-awareness as always as she was captured dancing inanely in the background. Perhaps Lewis took note of the negative connotations that surround being publicly approved of by someone as vapid as Stone as he returns with a bruising and bolshy fourth record.
Black Joe Lewis' 2013 studio album, Electric Slave, picks up on the barebones blues and old-school R&B of his 2011 release, Scandalous. As with his previous releases, including his 2007 self-titled debut and 2009's Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, Lewis favors a shoot-from-the-hip, lo-fi brand of vintage soul. And while he still peppers his rock anthems with flourishes from an adept jazz-informed horn section, Electric Slave is his most primitive album to date.
The blues hasn’t reigned supreme as a musical genre for a long time, but it’s given birth to many other types of music, ensuring that it will be remembered through the work of its children. It’s also familiar—part of the country’s shared ancestry—and there is always tragedy in the world, so the blues is never far. Last summer, bluesman Gary Clark Jr.
The blues rock revival has seen two distinct halves follow their own paths. On one side, Jack White and The Black Keys moved steadily into the pop realm, their garage-riffed jams largely driven by simple guitar/drums instrumentation and digestible, genre-focused styles (give or take White’s marimba). Those that drift further into the roughed up psych-soul half of the equation have remained one odd step off of that path, the likes of King Khan too gleefully weird and perpetually near-nude, The Black Lips too ready to vomit and piss onstage, Nobunny too…Nobunny.
The best way to experience a band like the gritty Austin, Texas, rock and wrigglers Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears is in a sweaty juke joint on a hot summer night, Mason jar of moonshine in hand. In the absence of that availability, or better yet, preparation for that eventuality, fans can content themselves with “Electric Slave.” The atmosphere is fevered from the jump, as the album kicks off with the fuzzy and ferocious “Skulldiggin.’ ” Lewis and his backing quintet keep the heat on through 10 more garage-blues tunes that conjure Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, James Brown, and a youthful Rolling Stones. From the careening “Guilty” to the frenzied “Vampire,” the band is clearly having a good time.
What a difference two years makes. Since the March 2011 release of second LP Scandalous, local lightning rod Joe Lewis has moved to Montreal and bounced back; split with funk brother, guitarist, and bandleader Zach Ernst; and ditched backing band name the Honeybears from all branding. In its place: Black Joe Lewis, the long-adopted moniker of a shouter whose Red River roots extend many years back beyond 2009 Honeybears breakout Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! Strapped with a Hard Proof horn section (saxophonists Jason Frey and Joe Woullard, trumpeter Derek Phelps), longtime bassist Bill Stevenson, drummer Eduardo Torres, and producer Stuart Sikes (White Stripes, Cat Power), Lewis trips third disc Electric Slave back to the garage-punk days of Black Joe Lewis & the Cold Breeze, opening with wildly distorted howler "Skulldiggin," the album's lead single.