Believe it or not, "Mustang Ranch" is a true story. One of the wilder songs off the second album by Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, it recounts a fateful night on the road, when the band was making the long trek from Salt Lake City to a show in San Francisco. In the first verse, Lewis and bass player Bill Stevenson spot a UFO hovering over the Nevada highway. Comically undaunted, they proceed to the legendarily legal brothel Mustang Ranch, where they get carded and in way over their heads.
As the Honeybears stomp out a raw funkabilly groove, Lewis recounts the antics like a particularly debauched James Brown. It sounds like he's making it all up as he goes along, but Lewis swears it happened just the way he describes.
"It's a true story. Pretty much," he says. "We were drinking and fucking around in the middle of the night. A lot of times we'll hit up roadside attractions to break up the drive, and Mustang Ranch just happened to be on the way to San Fran." When it came time to record the album, he didn't bother to write down lyrics. Instead, he says,"I just rambled off the whole night ... and embellished a little bit."
In a few short years, the Austin band has gained a reputation as one of the hardest-touring, hardest-playing live acts around, specializing in sweaty, grimy funk-rock riffs punctuated by raunchy horn stabs. A self-taught guitarist, Lewis started out playing gigs either solo or with a very small backing group, patterning himself on James Brown and Prince. His death-defying shows — during which he climbed on rafters and drum kits, played guitar with his face, and jumped around maniacally — made him something of a local legend.
His stage presence has only grown more intense with the Honeybears, and he admits that summoning that kind of energy night after night "is definitely tough." He has no pre-show rituals, aside from drinking a few beers: "I should start warming up my voice or something. But you have to make up for your lack of skills by doing crazy shit. If the crowd is good, you can feed off of them."
Primarily it comes down to good business: "You want people to come back, so you have to give them a good show."
Lewis' debut album, 2009's Tell Em What Your Name Is, sounded smart and sharp, but his follow-up, Scandalous, was even better: rawer and more rambunctious, with a better sense of songwriting and a livelier band dynamic.
"I like my music pretty dirty," Lewis says. "On the first album, that didn't come through that well. Maybe we did too much production or something."
On Scandalous, Jim Eno (of the Austin band Spoon) once again produced, but that grit comes from the Honeybears themselves, who sound as if the hundreds of shows between these two albums have made them tighter, heavier, gutsier. They jump genres easily and confidently, from the Bar-Kays-inspired party grooves of "Booty City" to the gospel shouts of "Lyin'" to the rambling rural blues of "Messin'."
Lewis and the Honeybears are often lumped with the ongoing soul revival that includes such groups as Kings Go Forth, the Budos Band, the Bo-Keys, and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (with whom Lewis and the Honeybears have toured). But Scandalous rocks harder and more irreverently than most of the acts associated with that movement. Lewis rejects the soul revival label altogether: "People gotta categorize stuff. That's just how it is. I love old soul music, but I think we're more of a rock band. I started out doing funk and blues stuff, then I added horns and people think it's a soul project."
In tandem with the Honeybears' development into a powerful backing band, Lewis' songwriting has grown more daring, more capable, more evocative. Alongside raunchy rave-ups like "Booty City" and "Black Snake" are songs with more serious subject matter, like the paranoia call-and-response of "Lyin'" and the soldier's anthem "Jesus Take My Hand."
"I read A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and that inspired me to write the song 'Lyin'," Lewis says. "I've always wanted to say political stuff. I'm not the smartest person, but I like to sing about things that piss me off. That's always a good source of inspiration."
"Jesus Take My Hand" isn't the soaring anthem its title might suggest but a fearful blues number written to a strutting riff reminiscent of Junior Kimbrough. Lewis has said he wrote it for U.S. soldiers in the Middle East, and it's easily one of his best and most affecting vocal performances on the album, if not in his career. "Jesus take my hand, I'm not afraid to die," he sings, and the exaggerated scratch in his voice conveys a palpable mortal dread — not of the battlefield but of the airports and driveways and tarmacs where soldiers say goodbye to loved ones. Even after so many songs about booties, UFOs, and prostitutes, "Jesus Take My Hand" is powerful and affecting, a reminder that Lewis and the Honeybears may be playing styles of the past, but their primary concern is the immediacy of the present.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, with Clay Otis & the Showbiz Lights
Thursday, June 23rd, 9 p.m.; $8