Goodness only knows what BellRays, one of sunny California’s most exciting bands, thought of our grim East Anglian weather. Fortunately, safely tucked inside the Norwich Arts Centre as the sleet bucketed down, not one, but two support acts quickly warmed up an audience barely out of their collective anoraks before Beast with a Gun took to the stage.
Anyone who takes the name of a dodgy seventies Italian giallo film is surely tipping off the audience that they’re in for a wild and wacky performance, and so this proved to be. This was a highly convincing slice of arch Americana, notwithstanding the bands improbable roots in Great Yarmouth. Despite the curious absence of bass, the band managed a full and meaty sound throughout, with booming drums and a twanging guitar reminiscent of the Dead Kennedys, overlaid with a gravel voiced vocal that brought to mind the late, great Lee Brilleaux. Eccentric, individual, and very entertaining, Beast with a Gun proved to be a cracking start to the evening.
A tad more mainstream, but still ploughing their own furrow, was Los Pepes with an all steam ahead, assault on the senses. Their punkish power pop is surely indebted to the Ramones (Eddie and the Hots Rods should be similarly flattered) and I wondered if the relentlessness drive of their exhausting set was going to be a little hard to take for the uninitiated. However, half way through I had something of an epiphany. This, I realised, is what listening to Motorhead sounds like the first time round – it’s something you have to ease yourself into. Sure enough, by close of play, I was nodded along with the rest of the converted.
The BellRays have been plugging away since the early nineties with their novel mash up of punk funk garage and soul, but in all that time have clearly lost none of their drive and enthusiasm. Starting their set as they meant to go on, with a blistering version of “Bad Reaction”, the band followed with a relentless, storming performance of extraordinary intensity and commitment. With barely a breath taken between songs and precious little chit chat, the band motored their way through something like twenty songs in their compact 75 minute session. If you do the maths, that’s a tune every three and a half minutes, and not a dud amongst them.
Bob Vennum has to be one of the coolest looking men in rock. Dressed all in black, with Warhol glasses and a shock of floppy grey hair, he jumped and skipped and prowled about the stage like your grooviest uncle had discovered the only place he feels truly happy and alive. His spare, just enough, guitar work gave texture and accent to the music which, aside from a few astutely placed solos, he managed to do without any of the tiresome showboating that can pull a song out of shape. Instead, he had the good sense to let the engine room of the rhythm section keep up momentum, content to punctuate, but leave space for, the vocals of Lisa Kekaula - and what magnificent vocals they were.
The rubenesque Kekaula is an imposing figure. With big hair and a bigger voice, she commands your attention from the outset. Whether showcasing her brilliant, soulful voice in the sublime “Infection”, tearing it up in “Everybody get Up” or simply have fun with “Shake Your Snake” Kekaula is undoubtedly the star turn, notwithstanding Vennum’s redoubtable ability to ride shotgun. Vennum did credible vocal duties on a couple of numbers (and bassist Justin Andres was given one song) but it’s her backing vocals that allowed the songs to soar. A formidable lady – she took time out in the middle of one song to tell me off for folding my arms – she is blessed not just with a great voice, but genuine star quality.
Look on the BellRays website and you’ll see them described as "The Stooges meet Aretha Franklin" or" Tina Turner and the MC5" or "James Brown being kicked in the balls by the Who". Well yes, Kebaula does sound a bit like Aretha Franklin, but however flattering that may appear, such a comparison does this unique artist a disservice. By the same token, while I heard shades of The Stooges and the MC5 in “Living a Lie” and “Mine all Mine”, it’s a comparison that is similarly reductive. Apart from a nifty encore of "Johnny B Goode", the set list was denuded of the various, and pretty good, covers they’ve previously tackled, and that had to be a good thing. They may have been influenced by many great artists, but its surely time to stop comparing and contrasting. The BellRays have a sound and attitude all of their own – and its one to be celebrated.