‘Maybe Ike Turner came down inside of the record’ An interview with Black Joe Lewis

Nate Burrell

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears play upbeat blues injected with influences that include soul, punk and rock ‘n’ roll. Hailing from Austin (though now living in Montreal), Joe Lewis’ dynamic vocals and heavy guitar licks provide the lead for a turbo-charged ensemble of horns and percussion.

The group’s 2011 release, “Scandalous” (produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno), is a fast ride down a dusty road with some surprises along the way. The track “Mustang Ranch,” for example, tells a true story of the band’s encounter with a seedy pit stop en route from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. The groove will get you on your feet, and the lyrics will forever change the way you think of a “glazed ham.”

Ahead of the band’s upcoming, KDHX-welcomed concert at Off Broadway on February 15, I chatted with Lewis about the Austin music scene, Ike Turner’s ghost and an upcoming tour with Flogging Molly.

Francisco Fisher: You received a lot of attention from your [2009] performance at South By Southwest. What other opportunities did you encounter as a musician from Austin?

Black Joe Lewis: Just getting to rub shoulders with a lot of good musicians and awesome bands. I’ve got good friends in Austin. It’s my hometown.

Is it convenient to be from a place with such a vibrant music scene?

Oh yeah, it is. But it’s a town where you have to really try and do something to get noticed, because there’s so much other good stuff going on every night. So you have to try to be original.

You’ve rejected the label of “soul revival.” Many musicians share your influences, but what really sets you apart from artists like Sharon Jones?

They play soul better than us. You’ll just have to listen to the records back-to-back and see what you can hear for yourself. It’s just a matter of opinion.

You’ve got an upcoming show in St. Louis. Do you have any influences that came out of St. Louis?

To tell the truth, I don’t know. Who’s all from St. Louis? There’s a lot of cool stuff going on and I like the city in general. It’s got an old vibe and I like all the old buildings.

Chuck Berry’s from here. Ike and Tina Turner met in St. Louis.

Yeah, all those acts. Ike Turner died when we went in to the studio to record our first album. As we were in the studio, we learned that he passed away. We thought it was a sign or something.

A sign of what?

Maybe Ike Turner came down inside of the record or something like that.

How much of the newest album “Scandalous” are you going to incorporate into the show?

We do a different set list every night, so it just depends how we’re feeling that night. We might play some songs off the new record, an old one, some covers and new stuff we’ve been working on. Just to have something different to play, something new. We get tired of playing the same stuff every night, so we like to mix it up. Some bands like to use the same set list for an entire tour. I wouldn’t be able to do that. It would drive me nuts.

After St. Louis, you’re going to tour with Flogging Molly. How did your two groups get together? Is it going to be a cohesive pairing?

It’ll be interesting. We played with them in Chicago two or three years ago; we opened up for them. It should be pretty rowdy when people get down on it. Either way, it won’t be a boring tour.

KDHX welcomes Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears to Off Broadway on February 15.

Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst expands its Black History Month celebration

The Beatles and Little Richard, 1962. Photo by Les Chadwick for Mersey Beat.

Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst covers many genres and sub-genres — British Invasion, Mersey beat, folk rock, garage rock, power pop, jangle pop, pub jock — but without the influence of African Americans it’s doubtful that many of those genres would exist, and if they did they would most likely not merit our attention.

It is because of this that I will be recognizing and celebrating those contributions by setting aside the four February shows (February 2, 9, 16 and 23) on P!TBBB.

This year I’ll be expanding said celebration. During the show’s first three years, the month featured three weeks of the bands that appear regularly on P!TBBB covering blues, soul R&B and other material either written by or performed by African Americans. The last show of the month has featured selections from the first three shows performed by the songs’ originators.

This year valis from Trip Inside This House will be joining me and providing the music for the February 2 show. Trip Inside This House is valis’ weekly exploration of the last 40 plus years of psychedelia; he will be bringing that expertise to P!TBBB. The show will feature two hours of music by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Muddy Waters and the Temptations, which will showcase the  contributions African Americans have made to psychedelia.

The remaining three shows will revert to the format from the last three years of Februaries. Those shows have not been finalized yet, but will no doubt mine selections from the following: Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers, the Kinks, the Searchers, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Tony Jackson, Manfred Mann and many more. You can expect to hear original versions by bands and performers like: Brenda Holloway, the Supremes, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Otis Redding to name several.

So, please join me (and valis) and celebrate Black History Month as we pay tribute to and celebrate the unique, dynamic and undeniable contributions made by African Americans to the music of Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst (and beyond).

Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst airs Thursday mornings, 5-7 a.m. Central on 88.1 KDHX.

Remembering and listening to Etta James

Etta James in concert 1990

commons.wikimedia.org / Roland Godefroy

In the world of American music (and especially rhythm & blues and soul) who, I would ask, could ever presume to test Etta James?

Now she has died, and no doubt the world shall speak well of her, but for all the recognition and notoriety, it never seemed that recognition equaled the talents and creative projection of one of the very greatest female singers in the history of recorded music, a woman who seemed to be capable of literally melting any microphone which carried her commanding and peerless voice.

Etta James had a sound with as identifiable a signature as her fellow Chess label-mate, Howling Wolf: It was immense and unique, and rightly called “a force of nature.” It could phrase the most delicate of lyrics from a ballad or shake the rafters of a concert hall. Compared to James, noted female singers of the ’60s (such as Janis Joplin) seemed derivative and one-dimensional or, in the case of the more polished Diana Ross, thin and diminished gruel.

You either were totally entranced by this vocal persona, or it was simply too overwhelming for your palate.

She was the greatest of talents in her generation when heard on record and stage, and for those who had experienced her voice and passion, there was always the question as to why Etta James was able to achieve considerable recognition and success, but not super-stardom.

The explanations given were often based in her well-known bouts of drug addiction. But if ever there was an example of a performer whose greatest strengths and virtues were also a limitation to greater popularity, there is no greater example than James. Quite simply, Etta was such a strong presence one can imagine producers trying to figure how to take that cauldron of emotion and towering, gritty, larynx-splitting ability and perhaps vainly hope to dilute it for the purposes of pop palatability. That soulful blowtorch of a vocal was larger than the needs of pop music, relegating her to the realm of legend, if not multi-platinum sales.

So, if the top of the pop charts was not her normal place in this world, she nonetheless made of her career an inimitable one that stretched from the mid-1950s (when the also-recently departed Johnny Otis — he died three days before her, at the age of 90 — brought her to Modern Records in Los Angeles, and to his road show R&B revue) into the 21st century.

James may not have had the commercial cachet of a Celine Dion, but then again, it is questionable any American president and wife will be seen taking to the floor to a Ms. Dion recording as we did when the Mr. and Mrs. Obama glided to “At Last” in 2009.

There were always labels and producers eager to work with this moody, gifted diva of blues, and like Nina Simone, Ray Charles, James Brown, Muddy Waters and Solomon Burke, Etta James was so obviously a class of one in her art, it would be foolish to claim otherwise.

I’ll remember those take-no-prisoner shows of her (I was lucky enough in the early ’90s to have emceed one of them, here in St. Louis): I remember how she wowed the crowd at the Fox Theatre when a filmmaker decided to capture Chuck Berry in concert. And of course the many, many four-star records she recorded for labels such as Chess, Island, Sony and others are such irrefutable proof of what I’ve just written, it’s pointless to say any more but this:

Listen to Etta James, whenever you wish to hear the real deal. She’ll be waiting.

Papa Ray is host of Soul Selector, every Monday 4-7 p.m. Central, on 88.1 KDHX.

Concert review: JJ Grey & Mofro (with JC Brooks) fill the Pageant with warm southern soul and blues, Friday, January 13

mofrofans.com / You Can Call Me Clay

The temps may have been well below freezing outside, but things were hot inside the Pageant last night as Jacksonville, Fla. native JJ Grey and his band Mofro infused the packed venue with their special brand of swampy, southern blues rock.

The band was recently nominated for Canada’s top blues award — the B.B. King International Artist of the Year Award. The winner will be announced on Monday at the 15th Annual Maple Blues Awards in Toronto. They also recently released their first live CD/DVD set, “Brighter Days,” available on their website.

The party atmosphere kicked into gear as the opener, Chicago soul outfit J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound, took to the stage, fresh off the air from an in-studio performance on KDHX show Gold Soundz. The leader of this throwback band, Brooks, strode out looking like a cross between James Brown and Little Richard in a black suit and white shirt with a red kerchief and a piled high Jheri curl. With elements of classic ’60s soul and ’70s disco with a post-punk sensibility, the band manages to bring a fresh, new sound while paying homage to its roots. They performed a number of originals as well as some cool covers, including “Tainted Love” and an up-tempo, funky version of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Throughout their set, Brooks delighted the crowd with his smooth dance moves, gliding and shaking across the stage.

The floor was filled with fans eager to dance as JJ Grey & Mofro began their set, Grey smiling broadly and growling — in his signature, soul-filled voice — the lyrics to “War,” as organist Anthony Farrell’s fingers tore across the keys like a hurricane. Mofro is one tight band, including the amazing Andrew Trube on electric and lap steel guitar, bassist Todd Smallie (a St. Louis native), drummer Anthony Cole and two-piece horn section featuring trumpeter Dennis Marion and saxophonist Art Edmaiston.

The audience sang along with the chorus to the groovy “Air,” from the band’s first album “Blackwater” (when they were known simply as Mofro). Introducing fan favorite “Brighter Days,” Grey took a moment to reflect, talking about how he wrote the song when things didn’t seem so bright and explaining how songs change their meanings through the years. Now in a happier place, he uses it as a reminder of when they weren’t.

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Memphis to Manchester’s top 15 reissues of 2011

Listed below are 15 of my favorite compilations and/or reissues from 2011. So much to choose from. I believe any of the following will provide hours of rewarding listening.

1. Ray Charles – “Singular Genius – The Complete ABC Singles” (Concord)

Every a & b side from his singles recorded with ABC-Paramount. This reasonably priced 5-CD set includes 106 tracks and comes with a 48-page liner notes booklet. Singular genius, indeed.

2. Various Artists  – “The Fame Studios Story: 1961-1973″ (Kent)

This 3-CD set features recordings from various artists recorded at Muscle Shoals from 1961-1973. Absolutely no filler on this collection of not often heard singles, hits & deeper tracks. Packaged with a beautifully put-together hardback book.

3. Various Artists – “This May Be My Last Time Singing: Raw African-American Gospel on 45RPM 1957-1982″ (Tompkins Square)

Flat-out terrific 3-CD compilation featuring 72 rare independent gospel 45 tracks. The intensity of some of these performances will blow you away.

4. Mickey Newbury  – “An American Trilogy” (Saint Cecilia Knows)

This collection consists of his trilogy of albums  from 1969-1973 – Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy & Heaven Help The Child – plus an extra disc of demos, rarities & unreleased tracks.

5. Various Artists - “Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner” Oldham (Ace)

Featuring songs written by Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham recorded by artists such as Charlie Rich, Etta James, Sandy Posey, The Box Tops, James Carr, Dionne Warwick & Barbara Lynn. This is just a single-disc compilation so it only contains a fraction of the songs written by one of the finest pair of soul music songwriters ever but these soul, country and pop versions of their songs serve as a really satisfying introduction.

6. Willie Wright  – “Telling the Truth” (The Numero Group)

Willie Wright was from Bayland, MS & later moved to Massachusetts. In 1977, he recorded this release & 1,000 copies were pressed. This soul-folk masterpiece remained buried in obscurity until unearthed by The Numero Group. One of the musical surprises  for me in 2011. Reminds me, somewhat, of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ album.

7. Charlie Rich  – “It Ain’t Gonna Be That Way: The Complete Smash Sessions” (Ace)

29-track, single-disc compilation of all the tracks he recorded for the Smash label in the 60s. Soul, country, rock & pop and it’s pretty great. Even includes an excellent rockin’ Christmas song as an added bonus.

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Concert review and set list: Nashville soul shines with DeRobert & the Half-Truths and Magic in Threes at 2720 Cherokee, Saturday, December 17

DeRobert & the Half-Truths at 2720 Cherokee, December 17, 2011

Francisco Fisher

“Play more soul!” fans chanted, hoping for a fix of a DeRobert & the Half-Truths encore.

The set had already covered 26 high-energy songs, but it wasn’t quite over for the funk-and-soul fiends who converged on 2720′s Loyal Funk and Soul Revue. What had them riled up was a double dose of Nashville’s G.E.D Soul Records including the Half Truths’ alter-ego, Magic in Threes, which opened the night with an instrumental sound showcasing flute and keys.

Drummer Nick DeVan called Magic in Threes “sit down music,” though it had several first-comers on their feet and grooving nonetheless.

Earlier that afternoon, DeRobert & the Half-Truths performed an in-store at Euclid Records to a small yet energized crowd. DeRobert, known as “Dee,” showcased his monumental range and power in soulful tracks including “I Swear I’m Not a Fool” and “Write a Letter” (both of which were played for the encore that night). His band mates wore matching Puma track jackets while exhibiting flawless attention to dynamics in order for the horns, guitars and drums to complement perfectly Dee’s vocals both in the record store and in a much larger venue later on.

While Dee’s singing voice remained crisp and unwavering, his speaking voice revealed itself to be hoarse and tired, perhaps from a late night and long drive. The frog in his throat is only noteworthy because it in no way whatsoever hindered the singer from belting out falsettos and his characteristic “whoa-ohs” with unrestrained energy (from the diaphragm, as you singers well know). Large beads of sweat fell from his face, yet Dee kept on a scarf and the same worn-in baseball cap he had during the group’s first visit to St. Louis in a much warmer July.

Speaking of fashion, the upstairs of 2720 was abuzz early in the evening with a runway show that featured electronic music and serious-looking models. If only there had been a live audio feed from the stage below where the retro aesthetic of Magic in Threes could have given several high-wasted garments (which I guess are coming back) a proper soundtrack.

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Album review: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound ‘Want More’ and get more

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound
“Want More”

The Chicago-based quartet is back in a big way with the release of its second album, “Want More.”

Members of JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound have skills beyond their years, but they are very much in tune with the present. They give the soul renaissance a modern edge with cross-genre instrumentation and contemporary lyrics.

For example, their new album features an upbeat adaptation of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” which is more than just a cover — it’s a triumph of imagination.

The strange humor of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” appeals to JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound as the lyrics sort of fit in among the original songs. In “Don’t Lock the Door,” Brooks sings, “You’ve got a hold on my soul; I hope that was your goal.” And in “Everything Will Be Fine,” he repeats the line “It’s not relevant if you’re not speaking.”

While the songwriting is memorable on its own, Brooks is also a dynamic vocalist who unleashes a crisp falsetto (that shines the most in “I Got High”) or lowers the register with a gravely timbre as in “Sister Ray Charles.” The group as a whole makes “Sister Ray Charles” into a highlight of the album; the song begins with a gritty electric organ and works its way up to a full, massive sound that effectively uses the potential of the studio, not to mention Brooks’ impressive vocal range.

Fans of the group should be familiar with songs from “Want More” because many of them have been featured in the group’s live sets along with songs from their debut, “Beat Of Our Own Drum,” which was released in 2009. That album contained the single, “Baltimore is the New Brooklyn,” a track that utilized the same brand of wry songwriting mentioned earlier.

Like their previous release, “Want More” is an outstanding package that captures the energy and excitement of JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. It showcases a vision of modern soul while pacing the album with a couple of slower, but equally intensified songs that include “Missing Things.” All in all, it makes for a great go-to CD to keep in the car, though the album probably sounds best on vinyl with a good pair of headphones and a martini.

For the fullest experience, however, you must see this band live. The group recently returned from a month-long European tour and wasted no time hitting the road at home. KDHX welcomes the band to Off Broadway on December 10, 2011, so check out the new album, get tickets to the show and see what all the fuss is about.

Concert review: The Bo-Keys dazzle at the Gramophone, Sunday, October 23

Jacob Blickenstaff

“You made a wise choice to come and see the Bo-Keys, guaranteed,” Charles “Skip” Pitts told a gathering at the Gramophone Sunday night. He proved to be right.

Pitts is guitarist and singer for the Memphis-based Bo-Keys. He has a deep, prickly voice and has made music history, if not only for contributing the wah-wah part in Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft,” but also for his work with the Isley Brothers and Wilson Pickett. With a Stratocaster in hand and a set of pedals at his feet, Pitts joined the Bo-Keys and kicked off a compact hour of both individual and group talent.

Gospel veteran Percy Wiggins joined the stage after a few instrumentals to perform his ’60s single, “Can’t Find Nobody (To Take Your Place).” Wiggins lends his sturdy vocals to the Bo-Keys’ recordings and did not disappoint during Sunday’s live performance. During a cover of the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger,” in which the band was in great form, Wiggins moved to the side of the stage. He leaned over, wearing a suit and tie, and happily shouted the title lyrics into a nearby microphone.

Ben Cauley (founding Bar-Kays member and Bo-Keys’ trumpet player) was not there, though new-schooler Marc Franklin did an exceptional job nailing the dizzying trumpet part in “Soul Finger,” as well as the remainder of the performance. Kirk Smothers provided a confident saxophone to round out the horn section.

Drummer Howard Grimes showcased his solid percussive style. He has a history in the Hi Rhythm Section, an ensemble that recorded with artists such as Al Green and Ann Peebles in the ’70s.

Scott Bomar, who brought the Bo-Keys together more than a decade ago under the Electraphonic label, played bass and chatted up the small audience by saying, “We’re going to take you a little farther down [Route] 55,” before introducing the instrumental “Jack and Ginger” from their latest album, “Got To Get Back!”

During “Jack and Ginger,” keyboardist Curtis Turner started out smooth on the electric organ and played with a style akin to the Memphis-based Booker T. Jones. But the comparison faded as Turner, a large man, stood up and cradled the Nord keyboard in his arms to play a scorching solo that was extraordinary to both see and hear.

A few people came close to the stage, but many were caught off guard by a lone dancer wearing black pants and a tie — he danced intensely (spinning and leaping) during the entire set, pausing only to sip from a plastic cup of water that he placed onstage. Both Pitts and Wiggins were gracious and asked the crowd give him a round of applause for his energy. The dancer hurt his back during the end of the set, which fortunately for him was only an hour. But it was a compact hour that included brilliant covers such as “Catch That Teardrop” as well as the popular original, “Got To Get Back (To My Baby),” with Wiggins on vocals.

For those who didn’t make it, an archive of the Bo-Key’s performance is available on the Gramophone’s website along with a performance by the Rhythm Section Road Show that took place earlier in the night. Andy Coco of KDHX’s Rhythm Section joined a handful of talented musicians including guitarist Teddy Presberg for a set that impressed members of the Bo-Keys and further encouraged them to play their hearts out.

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