Rock shows on Monday nights can be awkward. They rarely draw many people, and the ones who do show up are often still recuperating from the debauchery of the weekend. Even in a city like Austin, the reputed “live music capital of the world,” bands that play on Monday nights often struggle to maintain the customary energy level in the face of disappointingly dormant audiences. Leave it to the BellRays—one of the best live acts currently working in any genre—to do their damndest to buck the trend.
I once read about how Tina Turner grew increasingly bored of her then-husband Ike’s R&B-based songs during the early ‘70s, and wanted to pursue a harder-rocking sound. Once she left him, though, she went the MOR route instead. In a just world, her solo material would’ve sounded like the BellRays: loud guitars and pounding drums mowing down listeners’ ears like trains on tracks, with Tina’s raspy wail cutting through the racket like a conductor’s horn. The band’s mission statement, which appears on the front page of their website, pulls no punches: “Blues is the teacher; Punk is the preacher.” The BellRays fuse these sounds together to produce music that’s almost unrelentingly intense. It’s not the kind of thing you can sit still to; even if you wanted to, the band wouldn’t LET you.
The band began their set by barreling through some of the more aggressive tracks on their latest album Hard, Sweet and Sticky. I’ve heard some BellRays fans complain about the album’s glossy production; these people can rest easy knowing that the band’s live show is as raw as ever. Co-founder Bob Vennum, who recently switched from bass to guitar after the departure of longtime shredder Tony Fate, proved to be a more tasteful and melodic guitarist than his predecessor. New bassist Justin Anders had an endearingly jumpy stage presence, and his meaty, distorted tone nicely complemented drummer Craig Waters’ brash rhythm. The change in personnel was definitely good for the band.
Of course, vocalist Lisa Kekaula still controlled the music with a voice as full-bodied as her afro, and prowled around the stage as if she was scanning the audience for prey. Most of the attendees remained still and calm during this part of the set, but Lisa wasn’t having it. “I know this is a Monday night,” she said, “but I need you to act like it’s Friday night! I’ve come to give you EVERYTHING, but you’re gonna have to give something back to me! I’ve got a job to do, but so do you…and YOU CLOCKED IN WHEN YOU WALKED IN!!!” Unfortunately, Lisa’s admonitions weren’t enough to fully galvanize the audience…yet.
The BellRays devoted the middle of their set to softer material. For most of the band’s career, they’ve been much better at playing rock than R&B. Hard, Sweet and Sticky closes the gap a bit, though, with a few melancholy ballads (“Footprints on Water” and “Blue Against the Sky”) that rank among the band’s best material. The other three members of the band contributed shockingly agile background harmonies to these songs. This section of the set was proof that, even eight albums into their career, the BellRays are still growing and developing.
Once the band launched into Hard, Sweet and Sticky‘s “Psychotic Hate Man”, though, the set shifted back into top gear. Pockets of the audience finally started moving to the music, which only made Lisa demand more movement. “You’re not gonna remember the time you spent being cool,” she preached; “you’re gonna remember the time you spent letting go!” By the time the BellRays started reaching into their back catalog to play classics like The Red, White and Black‘s “Revolution Get Down”, I was too busy mimicking the band’s choreography to worry about whether or not anyone else around me was dancing. I’m sure that the band wouldn’t have had it any other way.