Too Cool for School
The term old school has become a part of the lexicon, and is used to describe something that bears a romantic hint of nostalgia, but retains a present day hipness. Whether referring to athletic jerseys or motorcycles, the concept of what is old, is new again dominates the pop cultural landscape, often to the point of gratuitous inclusion. In a musical context, there are numerous artists being hailed (usually by self-serving record companies) as throwbacks to a time when rock ‘n’ roll was about spirit and rebellion, and little else. Not surprising, most of these pretenders are simply over-hyped and underwhelming, representing carefully marketed style rather than substance As such, the presence of the fabulous BellRays is an electrifying blast from the past; the quintessential old school band, embodying an authentic punk esthetic and a hard rock pedigree, with an infusion of genuine R&B.
Existing in various incarnations for nearly 15 years, the BellRays continue to build on a reputation of explosive live performances, while flying below the fickle radar screen of the mainstream. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as BellRays’ fans can still maintain “ownership” of the group, while those unfamiliar with the band can expect a jolting, albeit immensely enjoyable, surprise. The new DVD, @ the Barfly, will appeal to both factions, as it captures the band in prime live form during an April 2005 stop-off at London’s Camden Barfly club. It is an hour-long dose of full throttle fun, as the band blasts through its set list with nary a moment’s rest.
Clearly, the focal point of the BellRays is singer Lisa Kekaula. Her smolderingly soulful vocals and commanding stage presence convey a “take no prisoners” attitude, as she belts out song after song, with a palpable ballsiness that grabs the audience by its collective throat. Backing Kekaula are guitarist Tony Fate (who should be charged with assault for manhandling his Gibson SG), bassist Bob Vennum and drummer Craig Waters (teaming to provide scorching rhythms), all channeling enough rage and power to shake the Barfly’s foundation.
The band has always defied accurate classification, as it is a true amalgam of divergent artistic styles, and the Barfly performance does little to narrow down who and what the BellRays are. Falling somewhere between Sonic’s Rendezvous and a polished version of the Stooges, with hints of the Ramones and Sly Stone, Kekaula and Company careen their way through 18 songs, most of which are the aural equivalent of a demolition derby. “Voodoo Train” is the first salvo of a steady bludgeoning, rapidly segueing into “Pay the Cobra”, “Change the World” and “Sister Disaster”. The onslaught doesn’t let up until the midpoint of the set; at the halfway mark, “Making Up For Lost Time” deviates from the hard-charging punk blueprint, as the band offers up some classic soul, only to follow with the ultra-funky “Tell a Lie” (which would fit comfortably on Isaac Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack).
The whirlwind continues with “Beginning From the End”, highlighted by Fate’s distinctive fretwork, then takes another momentary detour (two songs later) via the loping tribal stomp of “Lost Disciples”. Any semblance of order is quickly lost however, as the band veers out of control with “Remember” as Kekaula looks to her mates, imploring them to, “Bring it down, I wanna make sure these motherfuckers are listening to me tonight!”. Listening indeed, to every word and note the BellRays are generating.
The final three songs, “Fire on the Moon”, “Revolution Get Down” and “Startime”, close the set as it opened, at a blistering pace of unbridled energy and power chords. This is one of those shows that leaves everyone, artist and audience, completely exhausted, and provides ample proof of the band’s prowess on stage. It is well worth the price of admission if you’re lucky enough to catch the BellRays live; if not, then @ the Barfly is mandatory viewing for any/everyone who remembers music from a simpler, more honest time.
And the BellRays couldn’t be more honest in their presentation: no slick marketing campaign or corporate image… just amped up, ass kicking, old school rocking and rolling.
Let the BellRays take you on a wild ride… going back to school has never been as much fun.