Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Look Both Ways #7: In the Apollo’s Shadow, a Godson of Soul

My cousin Tom used to lecture a more impressionable me on the folly of interpreting Bob Dylan songs. Dylan lived his songs; he was in them. They weren’t just great poems or pieces of music, they were his blood coming through the speakers. Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” was garbage, Guns N’ Roses’ take on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” treason. If all professional musicians’ renditions were blasphemous, I asked, why was Tom always playing Dylan tunes on the acoustic guitar? “I’m not covering them,” he answered. “I’m channeling.”

Of course this made me laugh. But after a listen to Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears’ debut record, I understand what channeling means. Lewis is new on the soul scene, but his incorrigible howl, throaty growl, wordless and punctuated gasps on off beats, selective precision mixed with screams that abandon pitch—it all reeks of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

On the Honeybears’ new
Tell ’Em What Your Name Is!, released last week, the influence of James Brown’s incredible 1963 album Live at the Apollo shines bright. It’s important to bear in mind that while it would be an undue compliment to claim that Lewis can match Apollo’s genius or ebullience, it would also be selling the new album short to suggest that it’s a derivative work with nothing new to offer. Lewis explores ground that Brown never broached on Apollo, particularly on the tunes “I’m Broke,” with its electric piano and hip-hop groove, and “Master Sold my Baby,” whose music recalls Southern blues musicians who moved to Chicago in the ’40s and pawned their old acoustic guitars for Telecasters. Still, the cowlick of James Brown’s silhouette looms huge whenever Lewis opens his mouth, whenever he plucks out a riff on his electric guitar, whenever his thick horn section hits a break.

Apollo, a young Brown presented his sound, already famous from its tamer incarnations on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and in studio recordings, as the gamely, untethered dynamo it was during concerts. Brown’s vocals are squirming with energy, even on ballads like “Try Me,” and his horn section’s harmonies waver from lilting to wailing. The rhythm corps, meanwhile, seems to get ahead of itself so giddily that each of the first four tunes, a quick two minutes each, doesn’t come to an end so much as vault off the stage and into the Harlem night.

Lewis deftly approximates that nascent-funk-meets-soul sound, but it’s disappointing how obvious it is that he’s doing this as a 21st-century musical historian, not a vintage innovator. For instance, the guitar on
Apollo is packed with personality, laden with the grime and crunch of a lightly overdriven tube amp. On Tell ’Em, Lewis’ guitar suffers from a distinctly digital-age distortion. A filthy cloud of virtual sound soot, clicked and dragged onto these tracks with a mouse and keyboard, hovers between his instrument and the final product.

And then there’s the typical neo-soul problem of “sound” over song. Luminaries Sharon Jones and Raphael Saadiq are today’s masters at replicating the sonic formulas of old Motown and soul records. What they often miss out on are the timeless melodies and irresistible hooks that provided the real backbone of black pop music in the ’60s. Lewis has failed to write any song as infectious as “I Don’t Mind” or “I’ll Go Crazy,” highlights of Brown’s
Apollo. Still, Tell ’Em holds its own on today’s scene and appears to be the debut of a formidable new band that’s worth keeping an ear on.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the March 23 issue of the Tufts Daily.

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