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BellRays put the soul to the metal

Southern California soul-rock band the BellRays make their Aspen debut Saturday night at Belly Up. (Piper Ferguson)
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On the surface, the disparate parts of the Southern California quartet the BellRays seem to break down easily. The band, which blends old-school soul and hard rock, gets its soul side from Lisa Kekaula, a black, female singer, and its edgier aspect from Tony Fate, a white guitarist with a tendency toward thrashing six-string sounds.But, like the band’s sound itself, the explanation is more complex than that.”People say, ‘Lisa’s the black chick; she’s the soul element.’ But she’s into soul and Black Sabbath,” said Fate, who wrote the vast majority of the tunes on “Have a Little Faith,” the BellRay’s new CD (See review on page B5). “And I grew up on soul – Chicago soul, Jackie Wilson. But people don’t see that. They see the white guy on guitar and think, ‘He’s the punk guy.'”

The BellRays, who play Saturday night at Belly Up, are just another example of the musical border-crossings that come with this era’s open artistic society. Fate, an Indiana native, can make metallish sounds, Motown-style funk, punklike power chords. Kekaula can sing the prettiest old soul, or amplify the attitude with a grittier sound. The rhythm section of bassist (and Kekaula’s husband) Robert Vennum, and drummer Craig Waters, likewise, has multiple facets.”It’s just these four people together, and that’s what comes out,” said Fate. “We grew up with soul music, heavy metal, jazz – and that’s what comes out.” Fate added that, though the band members all came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, the BellRays are also “influenced by other eras, like the ’40s, the jazz era, eras we had nothing to do with.”The mix they arrived at came naturally, with no big idea to create a soul-punk hybrid. “I never sat down and thought about it. That’s probably the key. There wasn’t a concept involved,” said Fate.That lack of concept is evident in the way the BellRays treat individual songs on “Have a Little Faith.” The first track, “Tell the Lie,” could pass for a modern take on classic soul. But a song like “Pay the Cobra” breaks out the harder sounds.

“When a lot of people do an old-style soul tune, they think they have to wear the clothes of the day. They can’t play it like an old-school soul sound; they have to play it like punk rockers,” said Fate. “But we’re not going to crash our way through a beautiful old soul tune. That won’t sound good five years later.”People, even fans, might get the wrong idea about where the various elements derive from. But he seems pleased to have people paying attention. The BellRays have been in existence since the beginning of the ’90s, and released five albums. Not all of them have been readily available. “In the past, we’ve gone and played in entire countries where they say, ‘We can’t find your record,'” said Fate. “That’s upsetting.”The upset has waned since the release last month of “Have a Little Faith.” The distribution, said Fate, is much improved, as is the audience and critical reception. And so is the music, thanks to a bigger budget, more time and better equipment. Those luxuries allowed the band – and bassist Vennum, credited as the album’s producer – to focus on each song.



“There was a conscious decision to present each song,” said Fate. “The other albums were, the BellRays go into the studio and bash out an album. It would have an overall vibe to it. But here, with the strings, the horns, each song has a character of its own, rather than the album having an overall feel.”We’re doing the same kind of music. Some of the songs [on “Have a Little Faith”] are 10 years old. But all of a sudden, people are hearing the song, because of the presentation.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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