Bear Hug

Guitarist and bandleader of the Honey­bears, Zach Ernst is Black Joe Lewis's main musical partner in crime. Originally from College ­Station, Ernst went to Austin to go to college and found a kindred spirit in Lewis just when the dynamic front man was ­beginning his ascendancy on the local scene.

They've been collaborating ever since, and it's been a meteoric rise for both as Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears have gone from Memphis-style party band to a full-blown funk/soul/rock-and-roll powerhouse capable of igniting any crowd anywhere. The band has been on tour the past two and a half months, much of it with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, since releasing their electro-funkadelic Scandalous, their second for Nashville roots label Lost Highway.

Chatter caught up with Ernst as he was climbing in the van for the 12-hour drive from Alberta to Vancouver. Only three dates remained before he and the other Honeybears could finally head home to Austin for a couple weeks of downtime before hitting the Free Press Summer Fest Saturday.

Chatter: It's been almost a year since you've played Houston, and you ­really haven't played here all that much. What's your impression of Houston and the ­audiences you've found here?

Zach Ernst: My parents live in Houston and Joe has all kinds of relatives there, so we've both spent lots of time in Houston. The main thing I notice about the Houston audience is that it's much more diverse than our Austin audience. We've played Walter's, and that was a very cool gig and audience, then last time we played the Continental we had a great crowd. It was a blast. Houston knows how to party.

C: You guys are a bit of an odd duck among all the Americana acts on Lost Highway like Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll, etc. How is that arrangement working out?

ZE: For a band that started out almost completely unknown outside Austin, Lost Highway took a real chance on us and it has just been a great match. They've got a hard core of old-school music lovers at the top, and they've also got a great network that does distribution, promotion and tour support.

I have to give them the credit for getting our records out there. It's really great to walk into a record store in Seattle and there's our record. And just having these old-school cats believing in us is such a confidence booster.

C: The standard line is that Joe didn't start to learn guitar until nine years ago, and that he basically learned to play onstage through trial and error. Austin is a guitar player's town. How do you rate Joe versus the other Austin heavyweights?

ZE: I'm onstage with Joe every night, and I'd challenge anyone to get up there and try to figure out what he's doing. He has his own, unique style and he has really found his personal guitar voice, and that's what it's all about. He is Joe Lewis, and there isn't anyone else quite like him.

C: Your thoughts on ­playing ­Summer Fest for the first time?

ZE: Joe and I are super-excited about it. It's obvious the people putting the lineup together have a great aesthetic. The diversity of that lineup is as cool as anything happening anywhere. And Joe was a big fan of UGK, so I can't tell you how pumped he is to be playing in a slot between Bun B and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. I doubt that could happen anyplace but Houston.

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William Michael Smith