Between Soul and a Hard Place

The BellRays and The Spores

At The Mercury Lounge, Thursday, May 11.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

It opened with a sinister little puppet show and ended in an extended blast of adrenaline, in the line of punk-fortified urban soul music. Just another Thursday night at The Mercury Lounge in Goleta, where a bounty of kitschy décor and musical intensity lurks within the unassuming storefront in the blissfully dead zone of Old Town Goleta by night. This joint deserves historic hangout status in the grand timeline of local culture — before this stretch of Goleta is cruelly dehumanized by the mini-mallers. Those thoughts might have run through the head of someone at this raucous cool show by The BellRays and The Spores.

Headlining the show, The BellRays were returning to The Merc, on the heels of their crackling fine new album, Have a Little Faith (not to be confused with albums of the same name by Mavis Staples and Bill Frisell; it’s a title and a philosophy worth repeating). The band is built around the powerhouse lead singer Lisa Kekaula, compact in stature but bursting with soulful energy and the rough-edged timbre of Tina Turner and Bettye LaVette. Such grit makes her a likely subject for the band’s rocking ferocity, driven (and sometimes overdriven) by drummer Craig Waters, guitarist Tony Fate (also the chief songwriter), and bassist Bob Vennum. Sometimes, it seems like they’re missing a keyboard player. Other times, this stripped-down “Maximum Rock & Soul” approach seems just right.

At one point early in their set, Kekaula stood up on the couch in the “front row” of the club and taunted the audience: “Are you ready to feel, people!?” They were, and soon the couch was shoved off to the side to allow for a throbbing mass of kinetic anatomy in the house. At times, The BellRays’ rolling fury of songs suggested an old-school R&B revue, but toward the end, around midnight, they were closer to a punk model — like an Energizer bunny mainlining Red Bull.

Opening the night, The Spores, hailing from Long Beach, played a kind of post-’80s, post-post-new wave music, but with critical differences. Again, it’s a woman in the spotlight and the vortex, being bassist, puppeteer, and vocalist Molly McGuire. She’s a charismatic oddity, the kind we need more of.

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