In 1965 when a Byrds fan was asked to describe their music, she said, “they’re orange and green and yellow and near” and people actually knew what she meant. Of course you could get away with color wheel descriptions in those days because A) everyone was out of their tree but it was the same tree and B) you already knew what the Byrds sounded like — their heavily rotated songs floated out of every available speaker like transistor perfume. You didn’t have to be an MP3 gumshoe sifting through hours of useless downloads to find one decent band. Back then, good music would always find you.
Those halcyon days would’ve been ideal for the Bellrays — radio apartheid wasn’t in effect and you could hear garage rock, gospel and soul all on the same program with the same goddamned sponsors. In the less-than-perfect now, you’re lucky to just stumble across things. That’s how it was the first time I’d heard this volcanic band that belies its laid-back Riverside, Calif., pedigree. It was in Mesa, Ariz., playing in a sizable club that still didn’t have sufficient wattage to meet the Bellrays’ energy requirements without dispatching a crawling man with a flashlight to the dark end of the stage several times. More amazing still was that these technical pauses not only didn’t kill the mood but seemed to make the Bellrays stronger, like the heat of a pressure cooker or the silent treatment from a squabbling spouse. It helps when you have a front person like Lisa Kekaula who could carry on unplugged and still melt the ice in your gin and tonic and a band in bassist Bob Vennum, guitarist Tony Fate and skinsman Eric Allgood chugging away like the Bar-Kays if they lost their horn section and just decided there might be something to this punk-rock thing after all.
Therein lies the rub. You have to reach back at least as far as the Ford administration to find a rock band fronted by a soul sister, and even then it’d be more funk than punk. Thusly, the band has had to learn to live with halfway descriptions of itself that sound like Hollywood movie pitches — “Aretha fronts the Stooges” or the omnipresent “Tina Turner meets the MC5.” Although neither is a bad assessment, like most shorthand it only gives you a starting point. To hear Bob Vennum pick apart the Tina-meets-Tyner pitch for the umpteenth time, you could almost hear him wishing the Bellrays were renowned for being orange and near.
“The trouble with that description is that it assumes that the MC5 invented the idea of rock and soul revues,” he says, “and that had been going on way before that. If you would’ve seen the Temptations or any of the Stax tours or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, you would’ve seen a show that was much louder, much faster and had a lot more energy than what you got on the radio hits. It was the punk rock of their day. A lot of things that people credit Hendrix with inventing you would’ve also seen at those shows. We didn’t pattern ourselves after anybody’s revue. We just wanted to capture that kind of intensity and offer our own version. We add a lot of punk influences that weren’t in play back then. Nobody played like Black Flag back then.”
When the Bellrays first came up a decade ago, they were no less an anomaly than now. “When we started playing, the grunge thing was still in full effect and we did a lot of shows to people with folded arms,” says Vennum. “Every time we played more and more people seemed to come to the shows.”
That swelling throng would include press and A&R people who’d make inquiries about a bin of dead wood if they thought Dreamworks was interested. Most major labels wouldn’t know what to do with a black woman who didn’t sing and dance like Ashanti but rather stood legs spread apart like she was riding a bronco. Certainly not one with a band pumping and pogoing behind her, as the band does on the red, white and black promotional video for “They Glued Your Head On Upside Down” from the 2002 album Grand Fury.
“We’ve learned to gauge whether people are genuinely interested in us by asking where they heard about us. Most times they’ve just read a favorable write-up and have never seen us live. We don’t even bother sending CDs or material to major labels anymore,” says Vennum with little regret. “We’ve got a company that wants to work with us and gets things done.”
That would be the band’s own Vital Gestures Records, which has done a fine job of licensing Bellrays music domestically and around the world. Although a new album is set for release in October, the group is currently touring the United States and Canada to promote The Raw Collection, a compilation of songs from singles, split EPs and CDs, and the odd various-artists collection. It ventures as far back as their 1995 Wall of Soul 7-inch with the almost Smithereens-ish “You’re Sorry Now” but stopping short of including their last non-LP B-side, a tasty reheating of “Dream Police” that suggests they’re looking for you with tear gas and pepper spray in tow.
Since their buzzworthy performance at the 1999 South by Southwest festival, the Bellrays have toured and played with Nashville Pussy, the White Stripes, the Hives, Rocket From the Crypt and even MC5er Wayne Kramer. Vennum sees the White Stripes’ breakthrough, particularly in England, as a vindication of the stay free, be indie route.
“Before we went over to England, we were told that there weren’t energetic crowds, just a lot of people standing around. They turned out to be the music writers looking for someone or something to write about,” says Vennum.
The crowd reaction has grown a lot more rabid for the Bellrays’ each subsequent visit, as word of mouth has spread and writers now loiter somewhere in the back nodding. Although the band is deservedly being praised in the UK music press, at least one writer thought Vennum had a chip on his shoulder about that old Tina meets the MC5 thing.
Maybe if he’d just said “chartreuse with a mauve underbelly”…
The Bellrays will perform Friday, Sept. 5 at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) with Nebula and the Flash Express. Call 313-833-9700 for info.Serene Dominic is a freelance writer. His comprehensive Burt Bacharach tome Song By Song is out now on Schirmer Trade Books. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org