What makes great soul music? For fans of the legendary Detroit-based Motown, it might be the pristine production value and star power. Those passionate about horns and southern charm, look no further than Memphis’ very own Stax Records. And, of course, the songwriting talents of Gamble & Huff and lush funk instrumentals helped put Philly soul on the musical map. All soul music is great soul music. Soul music, in its essence, is designed to fill in a hole in the listener; to make one complete. It’s a very intimate experience. Oftentimes, that intimacy can turn animalistic.
Representing Austin and carrying on the rich tradition of Texas funk, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears skillfully craft their own brand of fierce and sexually-charged soul music. “Sugarfoot” off their 2009 debut album Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! is a testament to the energy of Texas funk amongst the contemporary music scene. With an arrangement of dirty, greasy horns, “Sugarfoot” is pure animal lust. Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am. No breakfast in the morning.
Lewis counts down the intro as the track opens and the band comes in on the mark without holding any punches. Playing hard and intense backing Lewis’ screaming vocals, the band performs on point without missing a beat. The call and response between Lewis and the Honeybears is gratifying and playful. Controlled and disciplined, the Honeybears know what the listener wants and they’re going to give it to you. You can feel the sweat rolling off the players as they recorded the song.
I’ve seen Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears perform twice. Both times in Chicago. As great as the band is in the studio, they shine even brighter live. Their energy is astonishing and the experience will leave you exhausted. If you’re new to independent soul music, or if you want to broaden your funk horizon, check out this band.
Country is a genre I rarely find myself visiting. It is not as though I never had the opportunity to appreciate it. I don’t have an excuse as to why this is the case. I spent the majority of my life in relatively rural areas where access to country music was nothing less than ample. Funny thing is that a lot of rock music I enjoy borrows from country and, in turn, creates really stellar subgenres. When I hear a song that blends both the rock and country genres seamlessly, I become instantly reminded of what I am missing and the vastness of diversity within contemporary music. Lone Justice’s 1985 single “Ways to Be Wicked” is a great example of when a song does this right.
Lone Justice was a country rock band that formed in the early 1980s and was fronted by Maria McKee. McKee has since moved on with a modestly successful solo career, but I’ve always been drawn to her first musical endeavor leading Lone Justice. Early projects by established musicians are always fascinating to visit because of the genuine intensity of youth and energy that comes from the record. Sure, an artist does grow in a lot of ways while often refining their talents. But, that level of craft can sometimes leave the rawness behind. The first record is a time when a band wants to make a big noise and really fight to be heard. It is seldom matched after that.
The driving force of the song is McKee’s voice and the power of it. She sets up the song singing to a former lover almost as if it were conversation. She is asking this person why they take such pleasure in the pain of a lovelorn McKee. McKee demands answers while accepting that she is powerless to matters of the heart. From there, McKee gains momentum as she is making a stand. She projects louder and further establishing that she is strong enough to handle the emotional manipulation of the situation. But, we’re all human and the heart wants what it wants. It is from that internal conflict where we can really hear McKee’s pain and frustration. There is real authenticity there in struggling to break free. We’ve all been there and McKee’s vocal performance feels real.
I was recently reminded of this song after picking up the album at the CHIRP Record Fair two weeks ago in a box marked “3 LPS for a $1.” I was very excited because the song is such a gem. The backing music is a bit uncharacteristically jaunty and generic, but it does its job well. Life is funny sometimes and the band reflects that in their arrangement. It can be good even when times are hard. Fight through the bullshit but keep your heart lite. There may be so many ways to be wicked, but you can take a little pain and hold it pretty well.