Star Time

L.A.'s BellRays recapture the experimental tension between rock and soul that once made punk more than a marketing strategy

Bands from Stockholm to Sydney cop the MC5's and the Stooges' riffs, wardrobe, and attitude while ignoring the broad, freewheeling musical taste that made each band more than just three-chord bruisers with notorious antics onstage and off. Young, hip headbangers worship the hard-charging 5 of "Gotta Keep Movin'," but not the Sun Ra tribute "Starship." They revere the feral Iggy of "I Wanna Be Your Dog" but ignore the carnival barker at the crazed metal-soul of "Funhouse."

"The MC5 is a buzzword now," writes Tony Fate, guitarist for Los Angeles band the BellRays. (Unable to be present for a phone interview from Riverside, California, with bassist Bob Vennum and singer Lisa Kekaula, Fate submitted a sheet of faxed answers for Vennum to read into the receiver.) "Every writer throws [the band's name] in a review to make like he's cooler than he really is. Same with most bands. Very few utilize the concepts that the MC5 put out. They don't acknowledge the free playing, the jazz, the extended song forms. They were a lot more than just 'Kick Out the Jams.'"

Also neglected in the rush to get the guitar parts down is the feeling of the 5's and the Stooges' love for black music (John Coltrane, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Redding) meshed into garage-rock fury. "What people tend to forget about the MC5, the Stooges, and the early punk rock is that its birthplace was right within R&B," says Kekaula. "It wasn't this magical punk rock that just kind of sprang out of the clouds, and that's the element that people are forgetting nowadays when they try to play this stuff."

"To me, the MC5 sound like James Brown, and James Brown sounds like the Stooges, and it's more of a spirit thing than any kind of technical thing you can attach to it," adds Vennum. "There's a spirit of soul and rock and punk that's out there, and that's what you want to tap into." That spirit has been the BellRays' "Holy Grail" (as Kekaula puts it) since forming from the ashes of the Rose Thorns in 1990. But husband and wife Vennum and Kekaula found their dream of fusing Punk, Rock and Soul (the title of their 1999 split CD on Coldfront with the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs) easier to envision than execute. While dealing with clueless bookers scratching their heads over the prospect of a black female singer fronting a rock band, the early BellRays also had such omnivorous tastes that they inevitably wavered between genres. Breaking from the Thorns' hard aggro assault, they experimented with a poppier approach. Missing that metallic edge, they then tried to inspire their revolving lineup with the example of friend Tony Fate's moody, driving Grey Spikes. "Whenever we were trying to show the people in the BellRays what to do," Vennum says, "we would take them to a Grey Spikes show. 'That's what we're trying to do! Think that way!'"

"They either wouldn't get it," laughs Kekaula, "or they would run out of the room screaming, holding their ears." Fate had filled in on bass during numerous BellRays personnel changes. Upon the Spikes' demise in 1996, he joined the group permanently. Vennum switched to bass, Fate to guitar, and finally, the band recalls, everything jelled.

An attempt to translate their live show into a by-the-book studio record, however, turned out to be an expensive disaster. Their bitterness led them to cut 1998's definitive Let It Blast (Vital Gesture) live in their practice space on a tight budget, and release it themselves. Not that recording Blast was a blast: Bob and Tony spent most of 1997 mixing it. "A treacherous, treacherous endeavor," Kekaula remembers. But the results were treacherous only in the best sense of the word.

Blast was high-energy rock 'n' roll bursting through lo-fi production values. Exhilarating and unclassifiable, the music caused most folks to use a "Soul Singer A meets Hard Rock Band B" model to describe it, leading to more entertaining matchups than a National Enquirer gossip column. (Tina Turner fronting the Ramones, anyone? Neither, nor.) Kekaula can belt without oversinging, holding her own over the roar behind her. And while Fate's guitar recalls Brother Wayne Kramer (with whom the band has shared bills), there's also a speedy fury that owes to punk slashers from Johnny Ramone to the Saints' Ed Kuepper and Johnny Thunders.

Vennum and drummer Tony Chin (who has since left the group, replaced by Todd Westover) steer the rhythmic hairpin turns smoothly, and, evincing her force from the get-go, Kekaula kicks off "Kill the Messenger" by preaching its first line to the choir: "I feel alone! I feel dead! Got a pain in my heart goin' straight to my head!" The song's chunky, power-chorded trajectory is interrupted by more stops for rave-ups than stalled cars on I-94 after a snowstorm, and without losing a kilojoule of its frenzy. But while Blast is a sweaty blend of guitar thunder and rock-as-gospel fervor, it isn't all uptempo shouters: Sultry jazz permeates the ballad "Blue Cirque," and "Good Behavior" is a slow, sexy blues.

The band's knowledge of music history, its technical skill, and its reputation for furious live shows in their hometown and at industry showcase SXSW have led to a healthy trickle of local press: The BellRays have recently taken "best band" honors in LA Weekly and New Times. Still, the band is a little bemused by the attention. After all, they simply do what most bands should and simply don't--that is, find a personal way to continue the legacy of the bands they respect. "We've had [writers] who didn't know what all the big hubbub was about," says Kekaula. "And, you know, I can see what they're talkin' about. I don't know what the big hubbub's about. Cause I kinda think what we're doing is what people should be doing. Get out there and play honest songs, without a bunch of fuckin' showy things."

If only it were that simple.

 

 
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