Black Joe Lewis at First Avenue, 10/01/13

Black Joe Lewis at First Avenue, 10/01/13
Photo by Tony Nelson

Black Joe Lewis
With Pickwick
First Avenue, Minneapolis
October 1, 2013

Black Joe Lewis brought his Texas-sized, soul-infused rock boogie to First Avenue last night, and enlivened a good portion of the crowd with an hour-and-45-minute set filled with blues-laden scorchers. Lewis was backed by a robust three-piece horn ensemble and a funky rhythm section, who injected plenty of spirit and energy into tracks that were mostly lifted off of their recent record, Electric Slave.

But sadly, Lewis's dynamic guitar work was consistently drowned out in the mix every time the horns or bass kicked in, robbing the songs of their vital, fiery core and leaving the tracks sounding rather indistinguishable and murky, despite the best efforts of the band to liven things up.

See Also: Black Joe Lewis: If you like cheap, go listen to Miley Cyrus

The group quickly took their places on stage and immediately tore into a lively rendition of "Young Girls," with Lewis animatedly playing the guitar with his teeth at one point, clearly lost in the spirit of the moment. But very little of his guitar playing could be heard over the brassy din of the saxophone, and the track suffered as a result. Lewis did gesture to the sound guy between songs to turn up his guitar, but the change was minimal, and songs like "Black Snake" and "Make Dat Money" were overrun by the horns, with Lewis's guitar sounding thin and muted. Even "Come to My Party" failed to find a spark, as Lewis was reduced to the role of mere frontman to what amounted to a lively jazz band, since his guitar was totally indistinguishable in the mix.

But the band was pouring everything they had into the set and clearly were having some fun up on stage, a vibe that easily transferred to the enthusiastic crowd on the main floor of the club. Storming takes on "Vampires," "Mustang Ranch," and "Guilty" -- which Lewis dedicated to George Zimmerman -- all got the crowd dancing along to their untamed rhythm, but without Lewis's blistering, inventive guitar work guiding the way, these songs ended up sounding rather tame, coming across as tepid James Brown-like knockoffs that lacked the effervescent originality of the Godfather of Soul.

Black Joe Lewis at First Avenue, 10/01/13
Black Joe Lewis at First Avenue, 10/01/13
Photos By Tony Nelson

The later portion of the set did manage to briefly catch fire with stomping, gritty versions of "Skulldigging," "Dar es Salaam," and "Sugarfoot" -- which finally did right by the lasting musical legacy of James Brown -- with the band all locked in and loaded during these towering, blazing numbers. The show actually should have just ended immediately after an impassioned version of "Mammas Queen," which the band absolutely nailed. It would have been a great way to go out.

But instead, Lewis dedicated a playful, halfhearted cover of the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" (with no acknowledgment by the band of the song's local ties) to openers Pickwick, which closed out the main set with everyone on stage having a bit of a laugh. And while that slight detour was over quickly, the encore was not, and dragged on far past the point of usefulness.

Black Joe Lewis at First Avenue, 10/01/13
Black Joe Lewis at First Avenue, 10/01/13
Photos By Tony Nelson

The extra half-hour started with what Lewis referred to as the "booty block," and featured rather conventional renditions of "Booty City" and "Big Booty Woman." The blistering version of "I'm Broke" that followed absolutely slayed though, and was by far the best song offered up during the overlong encore. But that was quickly followed by the worst song of the night, a wayward, lifeless version of "My Blood Ain't Running Right," which really got the set off the rails.

The band tried to salvage things with animated versions of "Bobby Booshay" and "Bitch, I Love You," but most of the crowd had left by this point, and a majority of those that stayed were looking at their watches and checking their phones and social media. Black Joe Lewis certainly tried hard to forge a connection with the crowd while injecting his boundless, soulful spirit into his songs, but without his dynamic guitar work featured prominently in the mix, the performance lacked both exhilaration and originality, and unfortunately wasn't all that memorable.

Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: I've enjoyed the studio work from Black Joe Lewis and his erstwhile band of Honeybears, and was really looking forward to seeing him live for the first time. And with that wayward audio mix, I still feel like I truly didn't get to hear him play guitar.

The Crowd: A really weird, diverse blend of families, old timers, young hipsters, dancing hippies, and ice cold scenesters, proving that Lewis's music has a really broad appeal.

Overseen in the Crowd: A middle-aged woman giving her man a double ass-cheek squeeze during "Booty City," timed perfectly to the rhythm of the song.

Random Notebook Dump: Openers Pickwick, out of Seattle, put on an enjoyable set, though again the mix was decidedly off, and was far too loud for the type of music they were generating. The six-piece band delivered a short set full of bluesy rock that went over well with the supportive crowd, with the band mentioning that this was only their second time in Minneapolis and on their initial visit they had to drive through a snowstorm to get here, which easily formed a bond with a crowd who have long grown weary of the winter driving conditions in the area.

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