The BellRays are like a charming, hopeless lover that you want desperately to remake. The very things you first love about them turn out to be their undoing.
The quartet can be simultaneously polite and stubborn; demonstrative and aloof; perceptive and oblivious. Such contradictions can be both endearing and frustrating; they certainly complicate matters when it comes to cataloguing a rock & roll band.
If The BellRays do run hot and cold, the heat comes from singer Lisa Kekaula. Her stage presence is riveting; she belts it out with no restraint. All salt and pepper with loads of grit, her voice can silence a club. And just in case it doesn't, she makes a habit of going into the audience and singing to individual members. With a voice that powerful, it could almost qualify as an act of personal assault.
Her cool counterpart is bassist Bob Vennum, with whom she formed the band 10 years ago and to whom she is also married. While she is all expressiveness and fire, he wears a hangdog facial expression beneath his Buddy Holly glasses, one that, intentionally or not, conveys weariness and disengagement. They appear to be the unlikeliest of couples. The rest of the band includes guitarist Tony Fate and drummer Ray Chin.
On the dinky cell phone that's the band's lifeline while on tour, Vennum is neutral, even passive, as he methodically counts down the The BellRays' tour path. "We haven't been to Florida yet -- Tuscaloosa, Ala., is about as far as we've gotten," he says.
Odd but brilliant, The BellRays fit none of the usual formats that help a band meet success. Instead, their music is an old-fashioned style of rock made by the likes of MC5, Janis Joplin and early "Under My Thumb"-era Rolling Stones.
They are part of the Los Angeles club scene, playing along with like-minded scrunge-rock bands such as the Screaming Cheetahs and the Hellbenders. But they don't actually live in L.A. -- that'd be too easy. They remain in dusty backwater Riverside where they formed, just far enough outside L.A. to make a statement, almost.
"Places to play are few and far between," Vennum says. "L.A. has the most only through the fact that it has a big population. There was a scene bubbling for a while, but it's gone away a bit."
The BellRays initially had an R&B vibe but gradually oozed over into rock. All those years of playing have given the band a diamond-hard, nearly impenetrable surface. It's as if they had to survive for so long without us that they don't really need us. "Lisa and I have been doing The BellRays for about 10 years -- anything before this really doesn't matter," Vennum says with a finality that invites no more questions.
For three years in a row, they've been one of the major buzz bands at the just-completed annual South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, and could thus probably garner a deal of their choice. But instead, they've retained control of their recordings, including their latest album, a sloppy, raucous affair called "Grand Fury," released on their own Vital Gesture label. True to form, they're hardly aware of their toast-of-SXSW status.
"We weren't really there much," Vennum says. "I didn't get to be a part of it so I couldn't really say. We played two shows -- the Spin [magazine] party and our showcase -- and took off again."
The annual SXSW party hosted by Spin is always one of the hottest tickets of the conference. "But it was a tough crowd," Vennum says. "It was a real industry kind of thing. We were there with two other bands [Idlewild and Brassy] that had nothing whatsoever to do with us. They're really obnoxious. I couldn't take them at all.";;"The fact that we got asked to do it was really cool -- I'm real happy about that," he says. His monotone voice reveals almost none of it.