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Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears – The Early Recordings

on December 06, 2008, 11:40am
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Being a great live band can be a blessing and a curse. Although your explosive performance may get people in the door and nurture a healthy reputation, it can also disappoint listeners when they actually pick up your album. As much as I love Ted Leo, “The Ballad Of The Sin Eater” will never live up to the volcanic tambourine-on-skull live incarnation that I witnessed as a college freshman. The same goes for “Via Chicago” by Wilco, and every Cold War Kids or My Morning Jacket song.

I saw Austin rockers Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears open up for fellow Texans Okkervil River back in October. Although not the type of band usually embraced by the Chicago Metro crowd, they brought down the house with their country fried blend of funk and deep Southern blues. The horns were grimy, the guitars were manic, and Black Joe Lewis was charmingly awkward yet impossibly cool, scatting and convulsing around the stage like James Brown going through puberty. By the close of their set, the music reached a whirlwind speed, each band member running in place as they played before collapsing at the jam’s climax. They wore out the crowd in the best way possible. I couldn’t wait to pick up whatever music they had available at the merch table.

The only tangible audio being offered was The Early Recordings, a self-released ten song disc featuring the majority of the material I had just heard them play. And while every one of the tracks is written with a perfect balance of whim and bluesman craftsmanship, they all sound a little unsure.

This isn’t a knock against the songs themselves. From the rickety, spoken word honky tonk of “Cousin Randy” to the playful, profane riff on everyday blues, “Bitch, I Love You”, each track puts an unpredictable spin on ancient genres while still remaining true to their roots.  But everything is a bit too quiet, the production muddling together in a single track soup. Even the horns on scorching opener “I Don’t Mind”, which were so biting live, sound hushed and restrained here.

Now we must keep in mind that the record is, after all, titled The Early Recordings. Those words sound like a collection of b-sides that a band would release later down the road, hinting that these are by no means the definitive versions of the songs. The fact that Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears just signed to Lost Highway Records most likely means a more fully realized album with different cuts (plus some new songs altogether) sometime next year. Let’s hope with a little label support (and financial backing), they’re able to beef up the production and truly capture the sweaty celebration of their live show. If a spindly dude like Peter Frampton is able to do it, why shouldn’t they?

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