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+ JOHNNY CASINO & THE SECRETS
Annandale Hotel
August 1, 2006

Words & Pictures: THE BARMAN

If you don't like slobbering, breathless gushes, leave now. OK? I've already copped a broadside from someone about one review of a gig this week - and the fucker wasn't even at the show - but here goes...

What an in-fucking-credibly amazing show. Just about the best thing I've seen this year. The Stooges beats it (although that was surreal an experience I'm still not sure it happened). Soulful, rocking, energetic and dynamic. Perfectly paced and a testimony to a band at the peak of its considerable powers. Cruisey and light at the get go, it shaped as a righteously loud and grooving way to ease us all through a Tuesday night.

And then all hell broke loose; fire broke out on the moon.

The BellRays cut a swathe through Annandale and left no-one in any doubt that they're one of the best live acts on the planet. They soared, dived back down, grabbed the crowd by the collective scruff of its neck and shook the living shit out of all and sundry until each and every person present had testified to the fact that soulful rock and roll can cleanse the gunk from your ears and make you feel alive.

They were THAT good.

As good as their current album is - and "Have a Little Faith" deserves to be a bona fide mainstream success wherever spirited and uncontrived music still has an audience - they're a thrill best experienced in the flesh.

Their 90 minute set was perfectly paced, peaked several (many?) times and pushed things way over the top at the end. An astounding fusion of hi-energy and viscerally thrilling soul-blues.

This was the only headlining gig of the BellRays' all-too-short debut Australian tour. Let's hope the planets align and plans to do another run come to fruition in 2007. There are murmurings.

Cue: Sounds of hopeful cheering.

I'd seen this band a few years ago in the US and again, three nights earlier, supporting Radio Birdman at the Metro. Birdman were in sharp form and I scored the honours about even. Comparisons are, of course, academic but if the weekend headliner had followed this set, well, they (or almost anyone else) might have been hard pressed to top it.

Don't ask me the sequence of songs. Just as they waste not a note when they're on stage, the BellRays practice sustainability and collect every set list at the end of the gig, presumably to use another night.

Things built from a souful base ("Tell the Lie", "Have a Little Faith in Me") but took off when singer Lisa Kekaula and bassist Bob Vennum whipped out the marraccas and rhythm sticks respectively and launched into "Lost Disciples". Can't beat that beat and from then on, these visitors had the locals right where they wanted them.

Lisa sallied forth into the crowd not once but twice, testifying and ordering each and every punter to the do the same. She grabbed guys by the collar, girls by the arms, and no-one was immune or exempt from the laying on of hands.

"Street Corner", a storming "Detroit Breakdown", "Change the World" and "Pay the Cobra" were incredible. There was a surfeit of songs from earlier albums ("Fire on the Moon" a notable exception) but nobody really seemed to care when it was being dished up this well.

I took the chance during the break between the main set and the encores to adjourn to that small room at the back of the pub to water the horses. A fellow traveller at the trough did what Australian blokes do when shaking hands with the unemployed and voiced an opinion: Yes, the BellRays were incredible and had actually wiped the floor with that "shitty Australian band with Deniz Tek in it" on Saturday night.

I slammed the guy's face into the tiled wall, delivered a couple of left and right combos that cracked ribs and knocked his head sideways with a sickening sound and shoved a trough lolly down his throat for good measure. He slid to the floor, an incoherent, bloody mess, with stumps where his teeth had once been and junkie-like pinned eyes now rolling backwards into his empty head like poker machine reels. That'll teach him, I mused, leaving him to pass out in a puddle of his own blood and piss as I made my way into the main room for the encores. Whereupon I had the bejesus whipped out of me by some chick who reckon I'd stolen her square half-metre of floorspace. One minute you soar like an eagle, the next...

What makes the BellRays so great? Besides the obvious factor of them being fronted by a lady with one of the greatest voices you're ever likely to hear, there's the band's sheer command of dynamics and willingness/ability to push sonic envelopes. Craig Watters' command of his kit is a thing to behold and if you don't think a great drummer is the basis of all great bands (rock and roll/spoul/jazz/whatever), you're kidding.

Fuggit, you’re better off not analysing this shit too much and living in the moment, but allow a couple of less musical observations:

The BellRays have great hair: I mean this in a good way, and not to infer they’re one of those horrible L.A. spandex bands who spend more time in front of the mirror than the foldback wedges. Apart from the obvious qualities of Lisa’s Afro, drummer Craig Waters ain’t no slouch in the highly-stacked follicle department either. Bob Vennum on bass wears it long (but obviously cleanly washed – can anyone remember when bands were slagged for not using shampoo?) and looks a little like a younger Ian Rilen. Guitarist Tony Fate opts for the functionally short and manageable look. I wonder what Lisa’s dry cleaning bill comes to (she dresses well) and climbing around in a different set of heels each night must be hell on the feet. Not that I know – I favour Blundstones.

The BellRays are extraordinarily ordinary people: After the show, Tony Fate came out to help pack up the merch stand and was immediately greeted by a string of well-wishers and fans. Although obviously in need of a towel-down and a lie down, he patiently spent time with each and every punter, being at pains to shrug off the lavish praise. Lisa’s on-stage testifying centred around one obviously heartfelt rant urging self-respect and much kudos for the ordinary people in the crowd who were the essence of why the band does what it does. No star trips here. He was full of praise for their headlining partners on this tour and seemed genuinely evangelistic in telling anyone who asked that Birdman's Los Angeles gig (on which the BellRays will play) is a truly historic moment (being the first time the Radios have played the States). All the while, he was saying he missed his wife and home.

There was another band supporting tonight, in the very rocking Johnny Casino & The Secrets. They're the latest project for John Spittles (notably of the now apparently dormant Asteroid B612) and despite the band leader’s self deprecation (“I hope you’re having a good time but if you’re not, you will be in about 90 minutes time”) they made a fine fist of their task.

“They’re not like Asteroids,” one punter was heard to say and The Secrets do take a different tack. It’s still a one-guitar show with Johnny doing the vocalising too; it’s still hard and heavy for the most part but with some lighter, almost country moments in the set. Guitar co-pilot Mick Poole and bassist Mark hail from the late 300 st Claire so you know the playing’s going to be up to the mark.

Can’t tell you the names of many tunes but one is Johnny Casinos’ Easy Action’s “Roy The Boy”. There’s also a fearsome cover of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and if it was being delivered with any irony (Johnny being a big bloke) it didn’t show or matter much either way. This is a song that threatens to become a hallmark of this band and you should check out The Secrets before they’re no longer one. “Thin Man” was the set closer and Mr Casino trashed two guitar strings this time around. Seemed to rate a couple of points higher in the Richter scale.


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