Black Lightning
Fargo Records (France)
by: TK Smith

Sometimes it only takes one song and you’re hooked. With the Bellrays it’s “Black Lightning”. We caught one of their shows last year at SXSW and were absolutely blown away with their set. Among many fan favorites they threw in a couple new ones offering the crowd a taste of what was yet to come. Lead singer Lisa Kekaula introduced the new number with, “you might like this one…it’s called Black Lightning.” The guitar ripped into a garage-metal riff, and a wallop to the chest with bass and drum bringing the thunder. Formed outside of LA (Riverside, CA) in the early ‘90s, the four-piece are known for their love of all things Detroit merging the MC5 with Motown. They are also marked for their independent streak. Kekaula and Bob Vennun lead the charge as they’ve made their way through thirteen records, lineup changes and a stubborn US market. Billed as “Maximum Rock and Soul,” they’ve took their blast of soul-punk overseas and have been met with legions of fans eager to digest anything the band threw at them.

“We were shocked at the reception we got in Europe,” says guitarist Bob Vennum when we talked during the football playoffs. “Finland and Spain were especially good to us, but France has become like our second home.” We talked as to why that was and he concluded, “the audiences are more receptive to our sound.” There are some hot spots in the states, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and LA where the audiences reach fanatical levels but Bob says, “it takes a skilled ear. We have a jazz influence, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, there’s the blues of Lightning Hopkins and Robert Johnson, punk with Black Flag, Ramones, outlaw country and rock.” Vennum defines his own influence pulling from the ‘60s pop scene leading with the Who, late 60’ Beatles, through to the seventies with Cheap Trick and AC/DC. It’s the power chord appeal rolled in with a bucket load of influences that has us raving about the group’s 14th outing Black Lighting.

“We started working on the record last year (2010),” says Vennum. “Have a Little Faith (2006) and Hard Sweet and Sticky (2008) were building a lot of momentum and we wanted to make a bolder statement. We wanted a record that had a more anthem drive to it. That’s when we came up with songs like the title track ‘Black Lightning’ and more specifically ‘Everybody Get Up.’ All the records we love have these really big numbers that work well with a large crowd. ‘Everybody Get Up’ is our version of something like that – like the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again or ‘Long Live Rock’ just something to get everybody off their seats and into the music.” Since the departure of co-writer and guitarist Tony Fate, Vennum has moved more into that role sharing writing credit with Kekaula. The record is definitely a more guitar-driven album with bassist Justin Andres and drummer Stefan Litrownik fully immersed in their roles and allowing Kekaula a full range of passion on stage.

“Lisa has always been a dynamic front-woman,” says Vennum. “She’s been compared to Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Patti Labelle. She has this built-in, inherent power that drives the song and she’s just as comfortable singing soulful ballads as the heavier rock stuff.” Which leads us to talk about the inclusion of soulful scorcher “Sun Comes Down” a tune that captures the essence of Thin Lizzy’s “The Sun Goes Down” and gives Peggy Lee’s “Fever” a run for its money. The hook is charming and makes room for the piano highlights of Chris Leroy. It also maximizes the use of the stunning backing vocals of the all-girl group Pussydelic. Just when it couldn’t get more soultry the band add “Anymore,” a Motown Soul classic in the making that drips with Etta James nuances. Says Vennum, “After writing together for all these years, Lisa and I know what we want in a song and she knows how to get it! She’s lays it in the groove but can also belt it out to the breaking point.”

When the record does wind up, it’s easily some of the hardest high-octane rock the band has penned to date. If ‘08s Hard Sweet and Sticky was the group’s nod to the Who, Black Lightning is their tribute to AC/DC. “Hell On Earth” is a 2-minute frantic attack packed with sex-drive over battering drums. The riff’s a stunner with Kekaula belting out the fury of a burned lover. She shifts gears in “On Top” letting us know she’s in charge and using her tongue as a whip. The old garage sound creeps in for the engine-revving ‘Power to Burn” with the Pussydelic’s (Jenn, Natty, Maya and Mimi) back in full force. “Living A Lie” jumps out as our favorite. The guitars have a Judas Priest density and a metallic solo break that fries the brain. Taking a bit from the Joan Jett school of anthem writing comes “Everybody Get Up,” a perfect crowd pleaser , if we can be so bold. Todd Westover (of LA supergroup Doorslammer) is the only outside composer contributing the cosmic guitar-bass heavy “Close Your Eyes.” The record ends with a classic touch of ‘60s soul in “The Way” complete with a simple backbeat, twangy guitar and that old school stax feel.

Produced by Vennum, Kekaula and Matt Radosevich (The Hives, All American Rejects) the record has a brighter sheen but still smells musky, sweaty and independent. “We probable could have gone with a major label in the past,” says Vennum, “we had offers but we wanted to do it our way. It may have set us back but we have no regrets.” When asked about the band’s more polished sound he admits they took longer to write Black Lightning but maintains they don’t use overdubs and tried to record live as much as possible. “We exchanged ideas back and forth but try to capture that ‘live’ feel when it comes to getting it down on tape. The performance is the most important thing to us. We use the studio to capture that. There is no amount of technical know-how to bring a performance out of something that wasn't performed. The crudest equipment can still get the best songs. Listen to a Robert Johnson album. They used the most rudimentary equipment by today's standards. But, put it on, and it's the voice of God right there!”

A special thanks to Bob Vennum and The Bellrays!

Website: The Bellrays