Remember the excitement of musical discovery, when every mixtape led to your new favorite albums and you'd go to shows based on the most casual acquaintance's recommendation? Being up for anything can serve you well, as most teenagers—and fans of the self-described "Maximum Rock and Soul" quartet the BellRays—are aware.
The BellRays With Top Heavy Crush, Sugar Farm, and Pretty Monster. Sunset Tavern, 5433 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206- 784-4880, www.sunsettavern.com. $10. 9 p.m. Fri., April 19.
Formed in Riverside, Calif., in 1990 by vocalist Lisa Kekaula and then-guitarist/now-bassist-and-husband Robert Vennum, the band has been one of the country's hardest-working ever since—with gigs that typically end in statements of "They blew the Dillinger Four/Jon Spencer Blues Explosion/random SXSW band off the stage!" heard round the world. Along with guitarist Tony Fate and drummer Craig Waters, the BellRays are often likened to "Tina Turner fronting the Stooges," a comparison that speaks to each band member's talents. Supporting their fifth proper album of emotional, electrified soul, Have a Little Faith (Cheap Lullaby), this summer, they'll likely play to rooms of already-fans. It's as much the result of a car commercial using their "Revolution Get Down" as it is high-profile dates with the Pixies in 2004 and good, old-fashioned word of mouth from the chatter mill.
"It's a testament to fans, clubs, and everybody that's always rallied around us," says Kekaula in her deep, robust voice. "It's important to acknowledge that [a band's] gotta have a support system to make things happen."
Having matched each album with a different indie label (not including their first, cassette-only In the Light of the Sun in 1993), they've earned that support system. Fans migrate with the band as they move from label to label, though Kekaula is quick to point out that while going the indie route has worked for them, they haven't intentionally shunned major-label attention. "It doesn't matter if it's major or indie, you can get burned with either one, and you can succeed with either one," she says.
It's about doing what feels right, an MO that extends to how they create and perform, as well as distribute, their gritty, punked-up soul. The frenzied sound gets them pegged as being from Detroit, which is only true in terms of spiritual kinship. In "Detroit Breakdown," Kekaula sings, "Motown schmotown/Ain't nothin' left/No more Iggy or the MC5/Wayne's been doin' it in L.A. now/So you're just livin' a lie"—and she would know. Still living in Riverside where she and Vennum grew up, Kekaula was chosen to tour as a lead singer on the European leg of the MC5's reunion shows. Since Vennum penned the lyrics to "Detroit Breakdown," you might wonder if he's just jealous of Kekaula. "No, the song was written way before," Kekaula explains. "It's more about the first time we went [there] and how high expectations were. We were like, 'What is this place? It's a rock and roll ghost town.'"
It's one of the few songs on Faith that, lyrically, doesn't sound like someone having an emotional breakdown. But while Vennum and Fate compose all the lyrics, Kekaula's delivery transforms them into something redemptive. She believes singers make the songs their own, but shouldn't cling to them so tightly that the world (watching TV or attending a show) can't read its own interpretations. "You write it to put it out there, you don't write it to control it for the rest of your life. If that's the case, keep the shit to yourself," she says.
It goes without saying that audience participation is practically required. Kekaula has made it clear in interviews that—as the black woman fronting a group of white performers (or producers, in the case of her singles with Basement Jaxx and the Crystal Method)— she's not the lone provider of soul in a band. With an insatiable lust for life, the BellRays are more than the sum of their parts: While Kekaula's voice pierces the din, the other elements mightily hold their own. Fate has said: "Soul is the teacher/Punk is the preacher," which Kekaula interprets as "going back to what rock and roll has always been to me, which is both worlds."
Embrace them both and discover your new favorite band.