By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
The BellRays' set at South by Southwest (SXSW) last year provoked the kind of massive critical slobbering that relatively unknown, unconnected, ultra-indie bands just aren't supposed to cause anymore. The SXSW guidebook compared singer Lisa Kekaula to Gladys Knight. A writer from Minneapolis described the band as "Tina Turner fronting the Ramones." A music critic from Austin's major daily penned a rave, branding them as "Etta James fronting the MC5." Another from the same paper likened Kekaula to Aretha Franklin. A scribe from Dallas said the BellRays were "Tina Turner fronting the Stooges." Even some lame OC Weekly music editor weighed in with his own "MC5-meets-Aretha" analysis.
Did the flood of great ink flatter the BellRays? Mmmm . . . yeah. And, well, no. Problem is the group they most resemble is this Inland Empire-by-way-of-LA soul-punk band of revolutionaries called . . . the BellRays.
"Labeling and comparing us seems too easy," says drummer Todd Westover between mouthfuls of his late-night supper. The BellRays have just finished a rehearsal at their Garden Grove practice space (a convenient midway point; half the group lives in LA, the other half in Riverside), and the band members—Westover, Kekaula, bassist Bob Vennum (yes, it's his real last name—cool, or what?) and guitarist Tony Fate—have huddled into a booth at a nearby Spires for an interview.
No, Kekaula interjects, the BellRays are much more than the imaginary collaborations they've been held up to.
"They're leaving out Black Sabbath, the Who, the Temptations, Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone," she says, a slight hint of exasperation in her voice.
Fate, um, intervenes. "They're trying to lump you in with something, but you can't Frankenstein something together," he says. "They're trying to paint the picture without having to go see it, and our thing is go fucking see it. Come see our live show, and make up your own opinion."
Obviously, the BellRays aren't into sweeping generalizations. Even more annoying are the attitudes they've dealt with during their 10-year existence of people who can't see (or hear) past Kekaula's flesh tone.
"We've had to really fight to get into some clubs," she says, "because we're trying to do something that you just don't see everywhere else. Visually, a black female singer in front of three white guys playing loud music is a big obstacle for some people, even though it shouldn't be. Pre-categorization has also been a problem with us getting booked—when someone gets an idea of what we sound like just by looking at our picture, which is crazy."
So what do the BellRays sound like? Turns out even the BellRays couldn't resist throwing some names around: their Web site makes a "listening to the Bellrays is like getting kicked in the balls by James Brown" reference; a "bus full of Motown recording artists being steamrolled by Black Flag" pops up, too.
Colorful images and all dead on target. The BellRays preach revolution with their music (and with the way they run their band; more on that in a sec), kinda like the way the MC5 did, but instead of the 5's "dope, guns and fucking in the streets" mantra, the BellRays' goal is to unite the masses with a skull-cracking mixture of maximum soul, punk, R&B, metal, blues, hardcore—rock & roll, baby!
At a BellRays gig last year at Chain Reaction, Kekaula was a leather-jacketed, nitro-fueled fireball, a throaty diva with commanding, full-tilt-orgasm vocals. Then there's the rest of the band—not merely statues content with backing Kekaula, but the grease that lubes the entire BellRays machine. Fate's blitzkrieg guitar attack is just as impressively pulverizing as the one Kekaula drops. Mix in Vennum and Westover, make mental notes of who they sonically remind you of (just don't let the BellRays know), and you've got a band that feels like both the past and the future of rock—"FUTURE NOW!" as they frequently chant on their self-released, self-financed 1998 CD, Let It Blast. Only ridiculously naive, burnt-toast-hippie optimists could possibly think that rock & roll can change the world anymore, but when you see and hear the BellRays—when you experience the BellRays—you get this feeling that . . . maybe . . . just maybe . . .Though the BellRays have logged adecade's worth of club shows, it really wasn't until Let It Blast that their profile started creeping up. Even before their SXSW set, former MC5-er Wayne Kramer had been raving about the BellRays, which gave them a certain hip-by-association notoriety. After the great SXSW reviews, Kekaula wound up on the cover of one of BAM Magazine's final issues; they were invited to play a large international music festival in France, where they followed Public Enemy; the LA Times metro edition ran a feature on them, something they never, ever do for a local, non-major-label band; and the LA Weekly gave them an award for Best LA Rock Band, all of which have helped to move about 3,000 copies of Let It Blast so far. Let It Blast is a pristine example of what the BellRays are all about, a loud, angry slice of organic rock & roll, with moments that range from Kekaula's pained, I-wanna-testify, wailing-priestess exorcisms to the band's frenetic nitro burn to the straight-up Stax grooves to the occasional bits of social commentary ("Changing Colors," a song penned by Vennum but howled by Kekaula—"You say you're black like me, but you don't want me around!"—about not being true to yourself or acknowledging where you come from). It's that rare album where there's not a stinker in the bunch, made all the more amazing by its low-end sound quality, recorded quick and on the cheap in their 15-by-15-foot practice room, each of its 17 tracks cut live to a six-track, with zero overdubs. It sounds like it was recorded around 1968, which Kekaula says is partially the point.