MANHATTAN, NY—Growing up in the small town of Round Rock, Texas, Joe Lewis was more inclined to playing football than to playing rock and funk music. Then one day, working in a pawn shop, he took home a guitar and began teaching himself to play it. Friends encouraged him to perform as a solo artist in the local open mic circuit. Seeking to connect with other musicians, Lewis then immersed himself in the local Red River blues/garage scene. He recorded EPs and albums, but nothing clicked until he met Zach Ernst in 2007. Ernst formed The Honeybears around Lewis, naming the band after a crusted container of honey they found on the floor of their rehearsal room. Four weeks later, the Austin-based Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears played its first gig. The band played its blend of contemporary rock and vintage soul music at many festivals and gained a following, leading to the group’s most recent album, 2013’s Electric Slave.
At Irving Plaza tonight, Lewis commanded the stage with charisma and showmanship. As The Honeybears churned out ragged blues and funk rhythms behind him, Lewis launched a love affair with his guitar and microphone. Despite a recent foot injury, he hopped and boogied hard to his own rhythms, and sang, grunted and shredded his throat like Wilson Pickett or similar 1960s soul singers. By the second song, Lewis was playing the guitar strings with his teeth. Later he played the guitar with it held over his head. His shirt was drenched in sweat by the end of the set. The rhythm section and three-piece horn section kept an eye on Lewis and took their supporting cues from his dynamics.
The band’s 16-song set, which featured 10 songs from the most recent album, had a swamp rock Southern character. Both the vocals and the instrumentation lacked polish and finesse, and this rawness seemed to grant the songs greater integrity. There was no intention of making nice, pleasant music; the band rocked with grit, grime and grease all over the songs. Lewis kept it raucous through distortion-heavy and feedback play. Building grooves that had booties moving in the audience, the cornerstone of each track was to support Lewis’ shouts with repetitive guitar chords and horn riffs, and then mine the guts of the rhythms with jolts of electric guitar riffs and punctuating sonic blasts from the saxophone, trumpet and trombone trio. The songs simmered and seethed, and seemed to end only when Lewis felt ready to get a new groove on. Just when it seemed that the band exhausted its vault, the musicians walked off stage, only to come back on stage to play two more grooves.