Things To Do

The BellRays Return to Rudyards With Love and Resilience

Lisa Kekaula and the BellRays Always Deliver Whiplash Soul
Lisa Kekaula and the BellRays Always Deliver Whiplash Soul By David Ensminger

The BellRays, featuring husband wife Bob Vennum and Lisa Kekaula, are a seminal, fiery rock’n’roll band that have criss-crossed the ever-changing country for decades. Unfazed, they remain defiantly excellent – a sustained force that fuses together the promise of rock’n’roll as both liberty-defining and sweat-inducing. And Rudyards will provide an intimate backdrop to their guts and glory romp as they debut tunes from Punk Funk Rock Soul Vol II (Hunnypot Unlimited) – likely including the forceful crunch of “Love and Hard Times” and the seductive slow blues whir of “Every Chance I Get.”

Singer Lisa Kekaula, who is part African-American and Hawaiian, stand and delivers. Her roots-deepened, sonorous repertoire of whiplash soul taps into punk’s nervy force and rigor. Though left out of most histories, which is baffling and prejudiced, black women have remained an intrinsic part of the core, from the Controllers and X-Ray Spex in the 1970s and Mutley Chix and Fire Party in the 1980s to Tribe 8 and the BellRays in the 1990s and others beyond. But Kekaula has gained more attention by appearing on tunes by inventive house music masters Basement Jaxx and electronic cognoscenti the Crystal Method.

Incredible dynamism and dizzying power are the propellants behind the BellRays, who remain a quintessential squad that converges dizzying Detroit rock’n’roll (the Stooges) licks and vintage scorcher Tina Turner with AC/DC (whose “Highway to Hell” they zealously cover) and more, erupting like a hella blast of guitar rumble, battering ram drums, and coiled bass. Kekaula’s frenetic, deep-throated, wailing roots-gone-punk vocals are a mighty force of untamed nature. And, just as Kekaula regularly touts from stage, "This is a rock show!" the band becomes a wall-of-sound that proves such truth.

For years, the BellRays stuck to a pared-down, no-frills, close to the ground recording style. On the album Let it Blast, that meant recording in a 15 x 15 room with a Sansui 6-track. While this teemed with lo-fi, Do-It-Yourself merits, their revved-up polemics – a flare for confrontation (like tackling the Ku Klux Klan on “Evil Morning,” from Grand Fury) and soulful exhortations to be strong and confident — always feel both resilient and personal. Meanwhile, their tunes also feel sinewy and singularly honed, like a reflex, as if they are attempting to crush the glossy corporate appeal of modern music meant for elevator rides.

“It was never our intent in any of those incidences to be like, no, man, we should just go all-out DIY and do it that way,” admits Kekaula on the phone. “We were just working within our means. I think we’ve always been that band. So even though this time we were able to get things recorded with Jim Diamond, from Ghetto Recorders studio, unfortunately my voice was not in good shape when we went and did the initial tracks. So, a bunch of that stuff we had to bring home and make it shine and glow ... That’s part of our DIY thing, where we just figure out; all right, this isn’t the perfect surroundings we thought we were going to have, to be able to cut the record and be done with it, but I think some of the songs grew because we were able to do that too. “

All of their music feels pressed with that can-do spirit and grit. For instance, "One Big Party" and “Too Many Houses in Here” are akin to updated MC5 tracks that rock wide-open, wild-style, and careening; meanwhile "Tell the Lie" lets loose a funk-punk platter and “Get on Thru” pegs a Chuck Berry style while adding mighty wallops and wails. The railing “Snotgun” focuses on the fight for freedom while being wedged between Crips, Aryans, and the FBI.

But their Black Lightning let them rise to new heights behind slicker production, straightened song structure, and honed soulcraft, including the title song’s titular evocation of “raw power in your veins.” Furthermore, “Sun Comes Down” dances in a Motown sway, replete with strings, snare rimshots, and lyrical postcards of sundown and love. Any sensible revolution must have a soundtrack that recognizes dance as the human condition and voices that are real and authentic.

“There is so much stuff out there these days that is created,” explained Kekaula, “even great voices that have been morphed and changed, so you don’t really hear the quality of it. I want the whole reality of it. We do what we do in a very stripped down fashion ... there is a truth in us being able to do it [that way] … It might not be trendy, it might not be these other things, and there may not be a ton of people out there telling you this the greatest shit, but we know it is.”

Across their song spectrum, “Power to Burn” is an anthemic surge, rich in choruses, evoking tropes of the road ahead, while “Living a Lie” is an outsider ode that describes the difficulty of cutting a markedly different path from corporate pretenders – the faux-hearted heavies that inundate the airwaves. Then, the unexpectedly uplifting, bounce-beat “The Way” sounds cut in Memphis, as if a 45 rpm platter perfectly square with the Stax Records roster.

In the last few years, their Punk Funk Rock Soul offered toughened rock’alongs like “Mine All Mine,” which should have caused a million fist pumps in the air as the narrator tries to recover from “the hole inside where soul should be.” Yet, spiels like “Shake Your Snake,” funk-merited ala Sly and Family Stone, resonates with a syncopated groove fashioned around the invocation “left, right, shake” that separates “the men from the mammals.” Infectious and limber, it curlicues around a slithering beat, while “I Don’t Wanna Cry” bemoans lost love that results from mistaking money and material goods for acts of affection. Organ blares, soaring vocals, and a thumping backbeat create a backdrop to the weary heart thrown down on the ground.

In all, across 30 EPs, singles, and albums released by myriad small and smaller labels, they have remained a battering ram against homogenization, a symbol of convergence culture, and a tribute to the spirit of keeping music divorced from the dumbed-down, devouring jaw of corporate entities. Hallelujah, you might find yourself saying in the heat of Rudyards while watching rock’n’roll get saved one song at a time.

“I think anytime we would make a record, to me,” avows Kekaula, “That is what I was trying to do when I am singing it. It’s just not for me, you know. I got what I need. I am trying to give it to everyone else.”

The BellRays, with openers Mod Fag and The Atom Age, are scheduled for March 1 at 9 p.m. at Rudyard’s British Pub, 2010 Waugh. For information, call 713-521-0521 or visit 21 and over. $12.
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David Ensminger