Blues artist Black Joe Lewis summed up his appearance in this year’s South By Southwest festival in one sentence.
“It’s a shitshow,” he described.
The festival takes over every music venue in Lewis’ hometown for a week in March. Anyone with a bit of musical talent and a dream of being discovered descends upon Austin, Texas, in the hopes of being heard by a record executive. The proudly outspoken Lewis, who made a name for himself eight years ago at SXSW, goes on to describe a recent incident where a festival volunteer tried to get him and his band, The Honeybears, arrested while they were loading their gear in an alley. The police came and gave the soul rockers a good talking-to. No arrests were made, but the occurrence left a bad taste in the guitarist’s mouth.
“I’m hoping that this is the beginning of [SXSW] re-evaluating their ways,” Lewis states over the phone the morning after the show. “Powerful people have to throw their weight around. We’ll see if it contributes to their downfall. I doubt it. … It’s a fascist festival. … They don’t even pay the bands. It’s almost like slave labor.”
Lewis has no qualms about calling people out, whether it’s about not getting festival gigs he feels he and The Honeybears should get or music writers who may not have given them a fair shake. It is from the repercussions of blunt discussions such as this that Lewis derives the title of his groove and horn-filled fourth record, Backlash.
There are still plenty of the party songs that caught the attention of critics and listeners. “PTP,” an ode to the power of female sexuality, originated from a catchphrase Lewis’ cousin created. He wrote the song long before our country’s current president made the slang term for one of the titular Ps a topic of political dinner conversation. He laughs about being ahead of the curve on the euphemism’s rise in social relevance. In “Lips Of A Loser,” Lewis channels the breakup ballads of the great soul singers. It wouldn’t feel out of place on a ’70s-era Motown record.
In what seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of the album’s title, several writers have said that the vintage rhythm and blues sound Lewis has employed throughout his career is a gimmick he should retire. Critics might be distracted by lively, shack-shaking songs Lewis has done in the past like “Bitch, I Love You” and “Booty City,” but that has never stopped Lewis from tackling cultural issues of the day.
While his audiences scream out requests for “Get Yo Shit,” Lewis wishes the crowds would be a little more appreciative of his contemporary material. Much like Sister Sledge did with their disco hits in the late ’70s, Lewis is writing socially conscious songs with a soulful aesthetic. One such tune, “Nature’s Natural,” opens with “a fire burning in a ghetto” as he describes watching the events in Ferguson, Missouri, unfolding in front of his eyes.
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“I saw the anger in the community that came up during that,” Lewis says. “It turns into a lot of black-on-black crime. People are tearing up their own neighborhoods. I remember feeling that this isn’t fully my country. I came to the realization that a cop can just kill you and nothing is going to happen to him, just because everyone is going to take his word for it. There’s a [feeling] of helplessness.”
Others may chide him for his rawness, but the honesty that Lewis exudes on and off the stage is no gimmick.
Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears are scheduled to perform Thursday, March 30, at Crescent Ballroom.