Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
Black Joe Lewis is stuffed into a van with his six bandmates and one stranger, as they hurtle across Texas to a gig in Marfa. Most of the guys are sleeping now, content in the knowledge they’ve just made the record of their lives. All killer, no filler, the fittingly titled, take-no-prisoners Scandalous (Lost Highway)—once again produced by Jim Eno, moonlighting from his main gig as Spoon’s drummer—is a churning slab of rock & roll, blues and funk, laced with a double shot of 100-proof punkitude.
This band has gotten tight as a gnat’s ass through nearly two years of barnstorming without a break. “We’ve grown a lot as a band, and so has our fan base,” the lanky, enigmatic Lewis acknowledges. “Hopefully it’s still going up, but it will ultimately be what we make of it. As the shows get bigger and we get bigger, we have to keep improving to meet the demand. If we can’t do that, it won’t go anywhere.” From the look in Joe’s eyes as he glances at the one-stoplight towns and endless open country of central Texas whizzing past, you can tell he knows whereof he speaks.
While on the road, they also eagerly soaked up the worldly knowledge of touring mates the New York Dolls and Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm. “The Dolls covered Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson, and so do we,” says guitarist Zach Ernst, riding shotgun in the van, as he does in the band. “That youthful, aggressive, unschooled thing is really appealing to us. That’s what we like to listen to and what we’re shooting for. We’ve had some lineup changes since the first record, but at its core, it’s still the same band, and everyone’s excited to move on to the next stage.”
Like his forebears, Lewis writes from direct, often bitter experience with unflinching veracity. The songs of Scandalous are littered with the debris of age-old issues: hard times and one-night stands, lying and cheating, redemption and revenge. Gritty, raunchy and real, his music is not for the squeamish, but experiencing it fully can be genuinely cathartic.
The album opens with the funky fantasia “Livin’ in the Jungle,” as Joe wails with tonsil-shredding abandon over a rhythm section erupting like a tropical storm and horns honking like hyenas in heat. “I’ve always said that if I ever got rich, I would go buy a bunch of land in the Congo or the Amazon, build a nice house and have an Amazon woman to hang out with,” he explains, straight-faced. On the following “I’m Gonna Leave You,” the band sends a jolt of electricity through a Mississippi hill country blues template. “It’s about leavin’ a girl, just gettin’ out while you can, before the shit gets too thick,” he says, punctuating the line with a wicked cackle.
From there, it’s all hands on deck, as one sonic assault after another rips into the eardrums and the pelvis all at once. The instant-classic highway boogie “Mustang Ranch” recounts, in sordid detail, an overnight drive between Salt Lake City and San Francisco, Joe spinning out the narrative as a revved-up talking blues. “It was a long, ridiculous drive, and we got the idea of stopping at the Mustang Ranch,” he recalls. “We were like, ‘Let’s go, man—we got nothin’ better to do.’ So we stopped in there, and it was a really odd experience.” Here, another quick laugh escapes Joe’s lips. “We figured out that we don’t fit brothels that well, and the girls are all fuckin’ busted. But nobody caught anything. Then we left, and we stopped in Reno at six in
the morning. It was a freaky experience. We went into a casino and got a cheap breakfast, and all the burnt-out gamblers were walking the town like zombies out there in the early morning. There were even weird lights hovering in the sky. That song’s a true story, pretty much.”
Lewis seems to be channeling Robert
Johnson on “Messin’,” which turns on his spooky, low-down vocal and
acoustic guitar. “I’m just an old-style blues fan, and I’m tryin’ to do
that kind of thing with it,” he says, reeling off the names of his
favorite practitioners: Lightnin’
Hopkins, Junior Kimbrough,
Howlin’ Wolf and
That spot-on assessment goes double now. “We pride ourselves on
keepin’ our own style and staying true to the guys we look up to,” says
Lewis. “We play the music that we like listening to. It’s always about
the music first.”