It’s hard to imagine today listening to Black Joe Lewis’ earnest take on rock and roll that the accomplished project all started in a pawn shop. Out of curiosity and boredom, bandleader Joe Lewis first picked up the guitar while working in an Austin, Texas pawn shop in the mid-2000s. He quickly became a staple in the local blues scene and released Black Joe Lewis and The Cold Breeze EP soon after. At nearly 4 million plays, “Bitch, I Love You”, one of the first songs Lewis recorded, remains his most popular on Spotify today. Word quickly spread about Lewis’ music, and opening touring performances for indie mainstays Spoon and Okkervil River followed.
Six studio albums, hundreds of international performances, and almost 15 years later, Black Joe Lewis has established itself as a group at the forefront of an exciting movement aimed at breathing new life and meaning into old American musical staples like rock and roll, soul, and blues. With plenty of critical acclaim, notable performances at Coachella and Bonnaroo, and multiple appearances on late night talk shows, Lewis has led a fascinating career that he now seems eager to look back on.
Released in 2018, Black Joe Lewis’ brooding 2018 album The Difference Between Me & You is shaped by the musician’s first decade of international touring, a lifetime of experiences the singer calls both physical and abstract, and modern woes that are plaguing both the Austin-based musician and much of the country of his origin. Some audiences perceive rock and roll to be a genre that has lost its teeth, but this album defies that notion in a big way with thoughtful, unguarded lyrics that address current events as well as Lewis’ often troubled emotional state straight on.
On the cowpunk-inspired track “Culture Vulture,” Lewis recalls the tragic events that took place in Charlottesville in 2017 during the Unite The Right rally: “Online you stay all night/ What they want they already have / Tiki torches and haircuts blaming somebody you never meet / That’s porno for the agency.” It’s a deceptively upbeat song considering the devastating nature of its subject matter. “Face in the Scene” takes an overt morose tone with unrushed guitars and somber horns: “When I seen your face / Seen all I need / You ain’t remember me / I’m just another face in the scene / Ten years in, never been sober / Always fashionably late.” Whether Lewis is singing about a specific person or the competitive music scene of his origin is open for interpretation. “Handshake Drugs,” a cover from the band Wilco, keeps the dark themes of the album going by putting a raw, sinister twist on the song with an indifferent vocal delivery, screeching guitars, and heavy drums. But not all of the album is weighed down by dread, as evidenced by toe-tapping blues efforts “Hemming and Hawing” and “Some Conversations You Just Don’t Need To Have.”
Stacked up against Lewis’ older work, it appears that the musician is focused on weathering the challenges of growing older in a time of collective fear and uncertainty. We’re a universe away from the racaus, optimistic energy of “Bitch, I Love You,” but what’s haunting Lewis’ recent work is much more fitting for the times.