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31 Dec 1969: Joe's Pub New York
Wednesday: Hump day at the office… trying to be invisible while still appearing hard at work. Scouring the Village Voice for decent shows. Seen them… seen them… they suck… seen them… hate that club… seen them . . .Whoa, hang on: the BellRays at Joe’s Pub, two nights. But that joint can’t hold the BellRays… They’ll destroy the place.
Friday: Hoof it over to the Joe’s Pub box office for tickets; basically a desk in the entryway with an artsy looking girl manning the cash drawer. Cool, not sold out yet. Pick up a pair for each show: Sunday and Monday. Sneak a peak at the layout… small, maybe 150 capacity: half seated, half standing. More dinner theater or subtle jazz club than a home of hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll. Doesn’t seem suitable for the BellRays. We shall see.
Sunday: First in line. Have to wait for early performers to finish up… acoustic lightweights. Stand for 20 minutes… Finally! Walk in and grab a spot on one of the couches. Couch-side viewing is decent, and better than the cramped tables and stiff chairs. Management calls it intimate seating. I call it opium-den chic.
Scan the stage configuration as two techs uncoil cables. No way the BellRays can fit…
Craig Waters comes out, tightens his cymbals, eyeballs the gradual, but steady flow of patrons… he’s getting a feel for the modest surroundings. Waters leaves as Bob Vennum brings out his bass and tests a live mic. Seats are filling up; glad I got here early. Tony Fate appears with his battle-scarred Gibson SG… plugs in and starts tuning… yeah, this is going to be L-O-U-D.
Ten minutes pass; crowd is buzzing. Check my watch… 9:30pm… lights go down… show time. Band enters, Lisa Kekaula iis the last to take the stage. The strobes hit… a shimmering vision of hair and high heels. She wields a pair of maracas as Waters plays the bongos. Set opens with the bluesy “Lost Disciples”... looks like the crowd is being lulled into a false sense of security. Third song is an exquisite rendition of “Have a Little Faith”, the new album’s title track… audience is digging Kekaula’s vibe. Band launches into the funkiest rendition of “Tell a Lie” I’ve heard… sounds like Shaft-era Isaac Hayes. They’re on a slow burn, but people don’t realize it… Kekaula’s taking her time, roping everyone in with her sultry vocals.
Three more songs, including “Third Time’s the Charm” and “Soul is for Lovers”. Absolutely gorgeous… But I can feel it; we’re going to get sucker punched any minute .
. . and, here it is, Waters is soloing… “Time is Gone” comes out of nowhere like a gust of wind. THIS is the BellRays. The set is in full gear now; Fate is beading sweat; Vennum is locked into the groove; Waters is flailing and Kekaula… she’s still smoldering, but looks ready to explode. BANG!!! The volcano erupts with the intro to “Pay the Cobra”. The rumble is deafening a few feet from the speakers, and in such close confines… Most of the table dwellers are in shock as Kekaula works the stage with her unique blend of sensuous rage. Fate goes directly into “Detroit Breakdown”, the opening riff reminiscent of the Ramones’ “We’re a Happy Family”. He is absolutely brutal on guitar.
Now the band is in overdrive and the songs are pouring out. They’re stepping back to the last album, The Red, White & Black with “Remember” and “Revolution Get Down”. The guy seated in front of Fate ducks; he’s nearly taken out by a Gibson headstock. This is awesome!
Kekaula just went down into the crowd and urged everyone to cut loose. It’s like she’s leading a revival… Hold it… I can name that song in two notes… it’s “Voodoo Train”. Another explosion! Kekaula starts spitting out rapid-fire lyrics… All aboard / all aboard / all aboard the Voodoo Train / get aboard / get aboard / c’mon and get aboard the Voodoo Train.
The band is careening out of control… Waters is bludgeoning his kit, with Vennum and Fate all over the stage; the strobes illuminate the mayhem… total chaos… One more song and the set closes with a flourish, over an hour and a quarter long… I can’t believe they played that long… the set flew by.
Band walks off stage, then reappears after a couple of minutes. Three-song encore highlighted by the oldie, “Blues for Godzilla”, and an extended soul-infused jam… If there’s a better live band, I don’t know ‘em. Generous applause everyone is stunned by what they just experienced… and I get to do it again tomorrow night.
* * *
Monday: Get to Joe’s Pub early, but there’s already a line forming—a sure sign that Monday’s crowd is going to be better than Sunday’s. Wait nearly 30 minutes and then head in, snaring my couch, same as last night… Place fills up much quicker than the night before, and there’s a loud buzz from attendees… Clock winds down to show time. Same as previous night: Waters gets comfortable behind his kit, Vennum and Fate turn on and tune up. These guys are the proverbial well-oiled machine unflappable.
Lights go down and the band takes the stage… The set opens: again slow and bluesy, with note-perfect renditions of what’s on record. Folks down front are definitely livelier than Sunday’s bunch. Kekaula immediately picks up on it; you can see it in her eyes… first half-dozen songs breeze by, resembling vintage R&B more than anything else… Tonight’s crowd isn’t fooled, though; they know what the BellRays are all about… the energy and anticipation are building. Song order changes just a bit with a few older tracks included, and the band is more “on”, if that’s possible.
The songs come fast now… “Time is Gone”, “Gather Darkness”, “Maniac Blues”, “Pay the Cobra”. Just like Sunday, the band has shifted from bluesy soul directly to high octane rock. Waters is a blur, playing with the ferocity of a young Keith Moon and the precision of Ian Paice… Vennum has his corner staked out and is doing his best leaps and kicks… Fate’s rubber-wristed power chording is amazing close-up… and Kekaula? She owns it all tonight: the stage, the audience, everything… Two girls down front jump up and start grooving.
More people leave their seats and do the same Kekaula waves them on. This is a total BellRays party! Some gangly dreadlocked yuppie steps in front of me and starts doing that grotesquely generic “hippie dance”. I’m enjoying the gig too much to airlift him back to his seat, so I give him a polite nudge out of the way as the band launches into “Voodoo Train.” I’m not the only person who recognizes the song… The moment is electrifying: the entire place is rocking and rolling now… The stage is awash in blinking lights, and four points of frenetic motion… This show makes Sunday seem pale in comparison. The set closes; the audience goes wild with applause and cheers.
I should expect the surprise, but I don’t… the band returns after catching their breath and unloads a two-song encore. People are still standing and dancing in the aisles… First song ends, and Kekaula turns to Waters, then to Fate. A familiar chord progression rings out… at first I can’t pinpoint it, but I know it’s not a BellRays’ original
... da na na, da na na, da na na, da na na, da da da... Are you kidding?! Highway to Hell?!... When it sinks in that the BellRays are covering AC/DC, the crowd starts singing along with the chorus and pumping their fists in the air… the band nails it.
Tuesday: Back at the office… trying to be invisible while appearing hard at work. Still have the BellRays reverberating in my head… it makes the day pass quickly.
The BellRays - Highway to Hell [Live at Joe’s Pub]