Black Joe Lewis Doesn't Let Being Angry at Canada Keep Him Down at the Fillmore, 12/03/13
Black Joe Lewis
Think No Think
Dec. 3, 2013
Better than: Seeing him in Vancouver, apparently.
"Blues-rock" is such a thing now, such a popular style among young garage-dwelling musicians and Victoria's Secret commercials that it would seem it's lost all meaning. In fact, it may never really have had any. Rock evolved from blues, right? We all agree on this? So "blues-rock" is akin to saying "buggy-car" or "pamphlet-newspaper" or "regular phone-smartphone." Right? Do we need to name a thing by invoking its roots? Isn't all rock "blues-rock?"
Well, maybe. Certainly "blues-rock" has more of a emphasis on the tradition from which it sprung, but the consequence of this is that, just as McCarthy saw Communists everywhere, so too does every fast-paced musical style with a hint of slangy guitar and a glance over its shoulder get called "blues-something."
This, anyway, was my sense as I listened to Black Joe Lewis and the Backing Band Formerly Known as the Honeybears tear into a fast-paced, slangy-guitared, occasionally meandering set at the Fillmore Auditorium Tuesday night. He and his excellent band -- a bassist, drummer, and two-to-three sax players -- came roaring out of the gates after an impressive, Misfits-inspired opening set by Missouri's own Radkey. Lewis heralded the performance with a song that was a rumination on the devil coming after your soul, which is true blues fodder. The performance, though, was everything else on the roots dial: soul, funk, psychedelia, some very fuzzy distorted stuff that the sax-buzz fed right into (and which is a sure stamp of the band's Austin origins).
What it wasn't was: sad. There wasn't the emptiness of the blues, the sense of seeking something that, through death or other circumstance, can't ever be found. This was too much, too big, too happy. He has a song about going to a party, for God's sake.
What did occur to me is that the Black Joe Lewis sound hovers somewhere in that liminal space between being commercially friendly and still too raw, too unhinged, to be bent to the will of advertisers. Still, early in the show, I liked to imagine what the media landscape would look like, the hard-charging, speaker-cracking, foul-mouthed roadhouse sounds bent toward some commercial purpose...
"Eat some fucking nuts-ah!" (Planters)
"You got to got to feel so freeeeeeeeesh!" (Irish Spring)
Or, to adapt his first big hit:
"Bitch, I love you!" (Jared Diamonds)
Maybe it's a terrible idea, but it'd be interesting to see, anyway. It would elevate advertising before bringing it all down. This was all still in mind when, later in the show, he addressed the city. "They still sell that San Francisco treat?" he asked. "That rice shit?" The man's a natural.
Lewis is a wild man onstage, a soul man, a revivalist on fire with the passion. This bigness of stage presence, and high-energy, jam-prone sets, is surely informed by the band's propensity for music festivals. I first saw them at the Austin City Limits festival soon after they came on the scene (as did everyone, it seems -- ACL was their national break-out).
Point being, Lewis' antics shape the narrative of the show, give us something to orient ourselves to in the wall of noise the band puts out. So it was strange that he sat in a chair for nearly the entire show: Having him sitting there, old bluesman-style, was a bit disorienting. Why put out such high-energy albums and then just sit there?
The answer, as always, is that it's Canada's fault.
Lewis addressed the audience a few songs in, calling attention to a limp he was sporting when he walked on stage. "I tried to stagedive in Canada and nobody caught me," he admitted. "So if y'all go to Vancouver tell 'em Black Joe Lewis said 'Fuck y'all.'"
And I looked around at my fellow audience-mates, at the conviction in their eyes, and I knew. I knew we would. This was our covenant.
Black Joe Lewis
(And to perform my due diligence... yes! He did play a show at Vancouver's Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 30, meaning he's been harboring this grudge (and injury) for three days, spreading Canada's non-stagedive-receptive infamy from Portland to San Francisco and on to Los Angeles and San Diego. Vancouver will rue the day!)
Without Lewis as conductor, the songs sometimes felt aimless -- fun and danceable, but aimless. What brought them around was often the sax players (one of whom, so he sayeth, was a former Stooge, of Iggy-and-the). Blasting through the electric din, the saxophones mortared the whole thing together, which maybe makes it jazz-rock?
It'll be interesting to see Lewis in 30 years, when a lifetime of Canadian injuries and the general erosion of existence puts the gravel in him, strips away some of the big-band frippery, when spiritual ache bonds to him by slipping a glass slide on his finger. When he plants himself in that chair not because he's forced to, but because he knows we'll come to him and listen to whatever devil tale or forlorn ad jingle he cares to share.
Or, he could go the other way and, like James Brown, never, ever stop dancing.
Critic's notebook: In the best traditions of call-and-response, Lewis, heading offstage before the encore, made a request of the audience. "When y'all go to Vancouver, I want y'all tell 'em ..." he began, to which we the crowd responded, patriotically, "Fuck you!"
Shoot, Lewis could make that into a song.