This is Friday night," Black Joe Lewis reminds the crowd as they happily howl for more. "Don't y'all got nothing better to do?" Not now, they don't.
The 28-year-old Texan and his band, the Honeybears, had their first big break in the UK this week, appearing on Later... with Jools Holland. The tight Southern 1960s R&B they basically peddle fits that show like a glove. But here in a north London venue's upper room, where the notes pound the walls and the low ceiling keeps in the sweat of maybe 100 customers, Lewis has made a breakthrough of a more old-fashioned kind. Watching him playing to the groove scholars of London's Jazz Café last year, he was good, but he seemed to hold back half of what he'd like to do. The Honeybears too had their vintage Stax shtick down, but were too slickly tight to make it their own. This is a better band on a better night, and as much fun as you can have without time-travelling back to watch Otis Redding himself.
Lewis is a wiry figure, his voice just strong enough to get the job done. Exuberant delight in his work is a bigger asset. Lyrics, ribald asides and shaggy-dog tales roll from his mouth. Most of what can be made out is about those R&B staples, comical outrage at the battle of the sexes and money. "Lost my wife and child", though, he also murmurs on "Bobby Booshay", the deeper blues spirit smuggled in.
So far, so familiar. But then the Honeybears shift gears into a Stooges cover, the Raw Power out-take "I Got a Right". Its ominous introductory drum-roll, urgency and abrasive thrash conjure punk-soul. The clipped, spare guitar work elsewhere owes as much to post-punk as James Brown's cold sweat funk. The squeal of post-bebop brass emerges with bashful brevity from dirty gutbucket blues solos. I even hear the jerky, martial stomp of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" in the increasingly unlikely mix.
This is clearly a band who've come to R&B late, with musically open minds. By the jazzy vamp of the Hound Dog Taylor cover "Let's Get Funky", Lewis has found a mic that gives his singing a 78 record's old-time crackle. The percussive blast of his mouth organ merges with his voice, and his own musicianship is proven. The climax is hard and quick. "This is the best crowd we'd had yet in the UK," Lewis concludes, meaning it. "Shame y'all are so damn ugly..."