Rock 'n' roll is by nature uncomplicated, yet driven by passionate excess. The Bellrays are both and if you see them live, take your heart medication and don't make plans for the next morning.
The Riverside, Calif.-based quartet, led by soul shouter Lisa Kekaula, brings sexy shimmy to the freight train crush of maximum R&B. For more than 25 years the band has been blending greasy roots rumble, bluesy soul and hopped-up garage-punk fury à la Tina Turner fronting the MC5.
"There are only two kinds of music, good and bad. That's really it," says Kekaula, while waiting to board a connection for an overseas flight. "All these genres are is just trying to figure out a way to put a barcode on it."
Maybe that's why The Bellrays haven't scanned wider. Though they've enjoyed their wins, including having their song "Revolution Get Down" in a Nissan Xterra commercial and appearing on late night television, they've never been on a major American label and have struggled at times with distribution.
As a result, The Bellrays are the type of band that makes you turn to your friends halfway through the first song and ask, "How the hell have I not heard of them?" Luckily, Europeans have stepped in to subsidize any U.S.-based ignorance. The Bellrays are much bigger overseas.
"It's just the way the world works for us. We have a lot more people that are willing to book us into these really good shows," Kekaula says. "It's how we make our living, so I can't complain that much."
One of the finest expressions of Kekaula's talent comes on James Williamson's 2014 album, Re-Licked, where the Stooges guitarist covers some of his band's classic tracks with different singers. Kekaula joined him on the combustible, "I Got a Right," sounding like an angry pet owner thwacking her dog of a government with a rolled up Bill of Rights.
"In this climate? Being a black woman in America? It's everything everybody should be saying every day," Kekaula says. "At the same time, people need help distinguishing between what a right is and what a privilege is. There are so many things people think they're entitled to nowadays. They don't understand what it is to fight for that right, really fight for it. It's not lost on me though."
Last year Kekaula joined Williamson again on the single "I Love My Tutu" backed with "Never Far From Where the Wild Things Are," a pair of children's songs to benefit homeless children in Hawaii.
"[Williamson is] a prince. Really, he's one of the best guys ever," she says. "I love when people ask me about James—he's a cool dude who just loves music and really appreciates it."
Last year, trying to bridge the gap between Black Lightning (released in France in 2010 and the U.S. in 2012) and their forthcoming album, Punk Funk Rock Soul-Vol. 1 (TBA), The Bellrays released a six-song EP of covers. It featured sinewy takes on Cheap Tricks' "Dream Police" and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," as well as a rampaging version of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."
When they get back from touring they expect to put the finishing touches on the new album, which was supposed to come in two volumes, a four-song Volume 1 EP and a 10-song Volume 2. Now, they're looking at turning it into a single album after delays in mixing made it impossible to release Volume I in time for their current tour.
"We've been working on it, it feels like forever," Kekaula says, laughing. "It all boils down to punk, rock and soul, which, we were talking about genres but it's not even about that; it's all rock 'n' roll to me, you know? But ... I'll tell you what, it kicks major ass."
Part of the reason for that is guitarist Bob Vennum. Kekaula and Vennum met in the late '80s while working at Cal-Riverside institution, The Bull and Mouth.
"We first started working together and then became friends and started talking about music a lot," Kekaula says. [Vennum] asked me to come down and audition for his band. It went horribly, and I didn't want to do it. We didn't try to do a band again together until we were a couple, and figured it would be easier to be in the same band than in two different ones."
It didn't come together immediately, though you'd never know it for hearing Kekaula now.
"That's mileage. That's the thing that happens," she says. "Some people are born with an innate ability. For me it was more about how do I grow my show? How do I get better at what I do?"
And while she loves what she does, The Bellrays aren't immortal. Sometimes Kekaula wonders if she's nearing the finish line.
"I know that what we do is fabulous," she says. "I know that what we do is something that everybody should be talking about. I feel like most of the world is missing out. I just don't know how much longer I'm going to wait around for people to know what they're missing. I'm not trying to keep it a secret but I'm also not trying to kill myself. I don't need the attention that much."