Soul purpose

The BellRays get us all kinds of worked up
By MICHAEL ALAN GOLDBERG  |  May 19, 2008

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SHOW NUFF “Every time we get on stage we want to be the best band in the world and nothing less.”

The BellRays — whose married core is singer Lisa Kekaula and guitarist/bassist Bob Vennum — have been making music since 1990. The albums? Well, all eight (including their new Hard, Sweet and Sticky) range from good to fantastic. The live show? Fucking mind-blowing. And virtually unimpeachable — you’d have better odds of finding D.B. Cooper than someone who’s been to a BellRays gig and walked out going, “Ehhhh, it was okay. . . ”

Watching a live clip of the California quartet on YouTube tells maybe half the story. There’s the robust Kekaula, all precarious heels, enormous Afro, and skin-tight dress, shimmying and strutting across the stage, her tightly gripped tambourine having a seizure while her other hand clutches the microphone for that rich, impossibly soulful voice (equal parts silk and napalm) to pour into. There’s the long-haired, bespectacled Vennum — visually a cross between Iggy Pop and Lou Reed — gripping his low-slung SG, slashing out turbo garage-punk bite and nimble, bluesy Stax grit. There’s the rhythm section (drummer Craig Waters and bassist Justin Andres) nailing every groove like an eight-ball cracked into the corner pocket. It’s rock-as-tent-revival fervor meets soul-as-atom-bomb ferocity.

But you could watch that clip 100 times and it wouldn’t convey the electricity flowing through the room: the way the sweat shakes off Kekaula and Vennum; the small pockets of cool air that pass over you, providing respite from the heat generated by dozens of drenched, dancing bodies; the amps so loud your ears clog up and other senses take over, turning sounds into colors and smells, like some glorious acid trip, even as each delectable riff penetrates your body and coils around every internal organ.

“Every time we get on stage, we want to be the best band in the world and nothing less — I want to be the only thing occupying the audience’s thought while they are with me,” Kekaula asserts via e-mail. She’s in Paris, where, after a few weeks of European touring, the BellRays are getting a brief respite before starting the month-long US tour (which comes to T.T. the Bear’s this Sunday). And she’s e-mailing rather than talking to me on the phone, as we’d planned, because, no surprise, she lost her voice after a particularly scorching show two nights earlier in Finland.

Of course, the gigs might not be as dynamic if the band didn’t have terrific material to stand on, and most of the tunes on Hard, Sweet and Sticky rank among the best of the BellRays’ impressive songbook. Two-minute trash-punk explosion “Psychotic Hate Man” yanks Tina Turner (circa 1967) away from Ike and plants her next to Johnny Thunders; “Coming Down” plays like a back-alley knife fight between the MC5 and the Dirtbombs as Kekaula snarls: “If you’re man enough to ball, baby, I’ll make it worth your while.” The band can do slow and sultry, too: “The Fire Next Time” is buttery, smoldering psychedelic soul, and the “Wedding Bells” is a magnificently melancholy six-minute torch song.

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