Bellrays Blur Musical Boundaries In Intense Set

Los Angeles quartet plays nearly seamless set of bluesy punk topped by soulful vocals.

SAN FRANCISCO — Soulful hard-rockers the Bellrays skipped the chitchat Thursday night at Bottom of the Hill and showcased a nearly uninterrupted stream of their fiery music.

"Check, check. We're the Bellrays," lead singer Lisa Kekaula began. Those were the only words she spoke in the band's 45-minute set. Guitarist Tony Fate and bassist Bob Vennum started with their backs to the crowd, extracting a blaring drone from their instruments before turning around and launching into "Fire on the Moon," the first of many new songs the Bellrays played.

The black-clad band was animated onstage — Fate's long hair flew and Kekaula marched around, pointing up and waving her tambourine as she belted out her hardcore-meets-soul vocals.

The new songs, many from an as-yet-untitled album due in June, continued with no interruption; songs blended together with feedback-heavy transitions. "Changing Colors" (RealAudio excerpt), the first song from their most recent album, Let It Blast (1998), was the only older tune the band played.

The songs throbbed with Vennum's hard, bluesy basslines, while Fate added punk-charged guitar jams. But it was Kekaula who held the small audience rapt with bursts of energy and a huge vocal range.

Unflustered by a failed microphone, she switched to Vennum's mic midway through "Take My Hand." The stream of songs paused for the first time after that song while the sound crew worked on the mic, but a moment later the band ripped into "What You Gonna Do," a bouncing, wah-wah-flavored funk song that got the crowd bouncing.

The Los Angeles quartet has been re-fusing rock with soul for the past seven years, releasing first tapes and then a CD on its own label, Vital Gesture Records. The Bellrays' live shows have gained a cult following in L.A., and they have performed the past two years at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.

"There's actually an R&B undercurrent to what we do," Fate said after the show. "[Drummer] Todd [Westover]'s got a R&B backbeat — that's a lot of what you hear in Black Sabbath and Wilson Pickett. I wouldn't be surprised if Pickett had Black Sabbath records. It's drawing these lines and saying what's white music and what's black music that's the problem."

Vennum said the Bellrays experiment with bits of music between songs to tie their live show together. "We try to create something else on stage," he said. "I just get bored hearing bands talk."

Bay Area trio Actionslacks opened the evening with a tight set of power-pop tunes. Sudden volume and tempo changes hooked the growing audience into songs such as "Folding Chair."

Cleveland's Cobra Verde closed out the night with a set of songs largely from Nightlife (1999). Singer John Petkovic's wiry body was in constant motion from the moment the band kicked off the set with "One Step Away From Myself."