For The BellRays, the title of their latest album, Have A Little Faith, is a command, an ultimatum even. We need more fearlessness! firebrand singer Lisa Kekaula declared last fall when the Southern California quartet appeared in front of the Washington Monument alongside acts like Thievery Corporation for the Operation Ceasefire concert. On this disc, The BellRays lead by example, barreling through an impassioned, genre-bashing 13-song set of maximum rock and soul, as they, in no uncertain terms, describe their sound.
In another era, The BellRays would be blasting out of car radios. Nowadays, theyre jump-starting car commercials, where cutting-edge bands seem to be getting more airplay than on your local FM station. For many listeners, their first exposure to the BellRays came from the Nissan Xterra commercial that featured the audacious vocals and killer guitar riffs of Revolution Get Down, from the foursomes previous release, The Red White and Black. Its fitting somehow that the group has been linked to the auto industry because their sound is often compared to the hard-edged, defiant, rock-meets-R&B sound of late sixties/early seventies Detroit and specifically to Motor City artists like the MC5 and the Stooges (though Kekaula is way more Aretha than Iggy). The BellRays do reference Detroit, but more philosophically than geographically. They evoke a time when rock and roll was as much catalyst as soundtrack.
We can deliver live, guitarist and primary songwriter Tony Fate declares. We dont go out and just play twelve hits, its a whole communal thing. Everybody has to give something. There has to be an energy exchange. Its not like watching a TV show.
At our shows the age range is so wide, Kekaula adds. We have a good mix no matter where we go in our world. They come to see us because they all find something to believe in. And were not lying. Its like when youre talking to somebody, having a conversation. Sometimes you get more excited, sometimes youre really laid back, sometimes you have love in your heart, and sometimes youre angry. Thats what we used to expect from bands, to go through the whole emotional gamut.
The band has connected directly with its progenitors. Kekaula toured Europe and the states with the surviving members of the MC5Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompsonon their much-heralded DKT/MC5 reunion, guest starring as lead vocalist. But The BellRays are no mere revivalists; what they do is neither designed to be ironic or imitative. They synthesize punk, R&B, funk and psychedelic rock with an undercurrent of gospel and the improvisational approach of jazz. As Fate explains, We utilize a jazz sensibility for what were doing. That makes the songs change every night and brings a chance element to the picture. The result is always inand aboutthe moment.
As an NME reviewer once put it, It could be 1968, 1977 or 1989, and The BellRays music could be burning out of a sweaty inner-city basement instead of floating off across deserted Brighton beach to the Channel. That theyre here and now is all that matters. This is music spiked with attitude, butjust as importantlyits music to dance to. And dammit, you will dance. A reviewer from Londons tonier The Independent heartily concurred, calling the BellRays some kind of dream combination: a belting soul singer backed by a tight punk-soul band...theres nothing quite like them. Gavin Martin, in Londons Daily Mirror described their show as an intense, cathartic and mind-blowing experience.
The BellRays have been working in the here and now for the last decade and a half, emphasizing commitment over concept, passion over pose. The group has its roots in Riverside, California, where guitarist Bob Vennum and singer Kekaula, who are now husband and wife, grew up. They recruited Fate, an Indiana native whod moved to the west coast, from another band on the Inland Empire bar scene, and Vennum switched to bass to accommodate him. When we got together, recalled Vennum, we played one song and realized this stuff was going to be really, really good. They released their first album, the R&B-laden In the Light of the Sun, on their own do-it-yourself label, via cassette. When these sought-after songs were finally reissued on CD, Rolling Stone called the work lightning in a bottle...a mighty exhilarating ride. The BellRays went through several drummers before Craig Waters permanently took over the spot.
If The BellRays can do anything for music, Kekaula says, its to dispel the idea that if you see a black singer that means she grew up singing gospel, shes the soul element of a band that has white guys in it. Because thats not the way it is. Weve all got rock, weve all got soul, and all of us coming together to do that is what makes us sound the way we sound. American audiences lag behind their U.K. counterparts, who have enthusiastically embraced the authenticity of The BellRays sound ever since indie rock icon Alan McGee decided to release a compilation of their work, Meet The BellRays, four years ago on his Poptones label. Kekaula herself subsequently gained even greater notoriety over there after Basement Jaxx recruited her as a guest vocalist on Good Luck, the grab-you-by-the-balls opening cut of their Grammy-winning 2003 album Kish Kash. Kekaula has also collaborated with The Crystal Method, taking the lead on High and Low from the duos 2000 album Legion of Boom.
With The BellRays, seeing is absolutely believing. After witnessing a Chicago show, a reviewer from the Spendid e-zine admitted, I was so taken by The BellRays, that if I was told to march out into the street and stop a car with my head, I probably would have. The Boston Globe praised the incendiary wail of vocalist Lisa Kekaula...the scrawl of guitarist Tony Fate, and the throbbing finesse of bassist Bob Vennum...The BellRays sock it to even the most hallowed and impassioned musical traditions with their great, yowling inferno of rock and soul. Fellow artists, like legendary Los Angelenos X and the reformed Pixies, totally get it and count themselves as BellRays fans; in fact, the Pixies chose them as the opening act for their recent tour.
For those who have yet to discover The BellRays, Have A Little Faith is the right place to start. Though the band used to produce their work collectively, Vennum alone took over the production of this disc. Despite the in-your-face immediacy of the tracks, The BellRays actually took more time and care in the studio than theyve previously been afforded. As Vennum explains, It helped to have a decent amount of time to make this recordto do something, listen to it, then get some distance from it. If youre just cramming, trying to play a lot of stuff and just get it all done at once, youre going to overlook some things and realize that you could have done them a whole lot better.
Clearly, thats not the case on Have A Little Faith. Fate composed the bulk of the tracks and shows off his range as a guitarist, taking the band well beyond just loudnfast. Vennum and Waters supply the propulsion; Kekaula brings the amazing pipes, along with a total conviction in every word she sings. The album opens with Fate employing his wah-wah pedal for an atmospheric Blaxsploitation-style intro to Tell The Lie, before Kekaula literally explodes onto the mike, making it clear that you will not be hearing any decorous neo-soul today. Snotgun has a punk rock pace, with a glint of metal around the edges; Detroit Breakdown is the MC5 side of Motown rock crossed with the Ramones. Conversely, Have a Little Faith in Me is a moody R&B number with understated strings and female backups that recalls Stories seventies AM hit Brother Louie. Lost Disciples and Time Is Gone have a more improvisatory feel, with sinuous guitar lines and undercurrents of percussion a la classic Santana or maybe the Stones when theyre in a Cant You Hear Me Knocking mood. Third Times the Charm is perhaps the most surprising of all, with an upbeat Stax-Volt vibe and a horn section providing a good-humored hook. On Change the World, Kekaula is at her most exhortative and inspiring, the embodiment of fearless: I want to change the world/I want to change it right now/I want to make myself better/I want to tell the truth.
The bands honesty is not in question; its everyone else we've got to worry about. The BellRays are on a mission, and if you have a little faith they might just change your world. Thats one way to get the revolution started.