THE BELLRAYS with Nebula at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (September 9). $12. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
You can't blame bellrays guitarist Tony Fate for being fed up with the music industry machine. In the early 90s, when the Strokes were still getting carded at CBGBs, his band was busting out the most vicious rock 'n' soul explosion Riverside, California, had ever seen. And they were doing it without any major-label support.
You can hear it on the sexy, sweaty hip-rollin' freakouts on 2003's Raw Collection (Uppercut), an assortment of rarities, vinyl-only gems and B-sides that proves the BellRays could've kicked any nu-garage band's ass back in 1995. The best part is that they're still kickin' it.
But Fate says bandwagon-jumpers and industry bean-counters can kiss his ass.
"Next week they'll be calling it punk rock junior or whatever the fuck they want," he snorts over his cell from a tour stop in Minnesota. "They keep trying to put us in that bag, although we and a lot of the bands had been around long before this whole garage rock thing happened.
"Let's put it this way: it's not hurting our sales any, but we're after something a little more musically sophisticated than the typical garage band.
"I mean, I like Louie, Louie as much as the next guy, but there comes a point where you wanna do it a little more abstract. Say something a little more than, 'Hey, let's rock 'n' roll.' And then what? What do we do after that? We're after a more spiritual bent."
That gut-busting spiritual element comes partly from Fate's phenomenal musicianship, which he claims is equal amounts Chuck Berry ("the supreme god of rock 'n' roll guitar") and Miles Davis. Impassioned lyrics and a pelvis-rattling rhythm section don't hurt, but the 'Rays' real secret weapon is the sizzling soul belting of afro'd vocalist Lisa Kekaula, a former jazz crooner who howls like James Brown, Aretha, Tina Turner and Elvis whipped with cayenne in a blender.
The BellRays are a band you've gotta see live. Raw Collection definitely isn't the band's best work, and while Grand Fury or 99's great Let It Blast are better showcases of their talent, they can't quite replicate the sticky intensity of their stage presence on disc.
Besides, at a live show it's impossible to take your eyes off Kekaula, who shimmies and shakes a tambourine with bruising ferocity, luring rock disciples toward the stage. Hers is a talent that wows the unlikeliest folks, like the booty-house boys of Basement Jaxx, who feature Kekaula's vocals (along with contributions by Siouxsie Sioux, Me'shell NdegéOcello and, uh, JC from 'NSYNC) in a track called Good Luck on their upcoming Kish Kash (XL) disc, set to drop October 20.
Kekaula's guest spot should bring the BellRays wider exposure. Their fiercely independent approach (until 2001's Grand Fury, albums were only available on Fate's own Vital Gesture label, and the band made most of their sales at shows) means that despite being named the best rock band in Los Angeles by the L.A. Weekly in both 1999 and 2000, the 'Rays have stayed under the radar for the most part.
That's why, explains Fate, he and his bandmates are huge proponents of the Internet as a lifeline for indie musicians.
"The first time we went to Spain none of our recordings had been released there or anything, and we show up and the fans are singing along with songs they could never buy in a store. And they don't even speak English!"