March 26, 2006

SXSW Report #17: The BellRays @ the Victory Grill

As the Thursday sun began to set, the BellRays walked on the Victory Grill stage and gave me my second truly mind-blowing SXSW 2006 experience.

I remember reading about how Tina Turner gradually grew bored of her then-husband Ike’s songs during the early ’70s, and wanted to pursue a more rock-based sound. Unfortunately, she went the MOR adult-contemporary route after leaving him. In a just world, her solo material would’ve sounded like the BellRays: loud guitars and drums mowing down the listener’s ears like a train on a track, with Tina’s soulful wail functioning as the conductor’s horn would, cutting through the racket to capture the passengers’ attention.

My only prior exposure to the BellRays was hearing their song “Stupid F*ckin’ People” (from their 2001 album Grand Fury) on the Splendid E-zine jukebox. I adopted that song as a personal anthem --- with a title like that, can you blame me? I never thought to pick up any of their albums, though. What a fool I was for neglecting them for so long!

It goes without saying that singer Lisa Kekaula has a voice that’s as big as her Afro, and powerful enough to strip paint off of a car, and that her male comrades are all black belts on their respective instruments. What REALLY impressed me about their performance was the sincerity and passion behind it. This wasn’t a United Colors of Benetton gimmick, a diluted “neo-soul” approximation of rock or an ironic “post-R&B” pastiche (I’ll be polite and refrain from naming names). When they write the words “soul is the teacher, punk is the preacher” in their CD liner notes, they back it up with their music. When Lisa sings “You are a star!” to the audience, she sings it over and over again until she feels that everyone has gotten the message.

I danced so hard to their music that a screw popped out of the rims of my glasses. I had to run to a nearby convenience store to buy some black electrical tape to put them back together with. I don’t think I missed more than two songs of their set. I bought their latest CD The Red, White and Black after their set, and Lisa thanked me for dancing up front. I apologized for leaving in the middle of their set, and showed her my taped-up glasses. “That’s the best reason I’ve ever heard for leaving a show!” she said. It is rare to run into a band that exudes joy and conviction, both on and off the stage. The BellRays are one of them.

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