As a band they’re quite young, having had their first live public performance only eight months ago. Hearing them play together, however, you’d never know it. This, and perhaps a certain unnameable intangible something else, could be the reason why Bells have become one of the most exciting new bands in the Bay Area.
Again, I give credit to Ash Reiter for bringing a band to my attention. It was in the weeks leading up to their first performance that Ash declared Bells as her new favorite band. She had been experimenting with funkier, more exotic rhythms in the mold of Talking Heads with her song “2012,” and Bells’ deeper grasp of this sound was clearly hitting Ash’s sweet spot.
The core of Bells was formed by singer/percussionist Sandra Lawson-Ndu and bassist/vocalist Doug Stuart. Doug was already familiar to me, as I had quickly become drawn to his sound upon hearing him play upright bass with Anna Ash. He reminded me of Charlie Haden, I told him, which nearly made him blush. But it’s true – just like Charlie, Doug is a tasteful and sensitive virtuoso, someone who not only sounds great by himself but also makes those around him sound even better.
As a vocalist, Sandra walks the line between smooth and funky, keeping her mellow vocals slinkily at home within danceable and tricky rhythms. She brings a strong West African influence to the band’s sound which, when combined with Doug’s jazz-steeped funk grooves, turns any hard surface into a dance floor. Think of tUnE-yArDs with a little less reliance on loops, and a front-woman who will make you feel compelled to give her a great big hug.
Rounding out the band are Derek Barber on guitar and Geneva Harrison on drums. Derek, like Doug, is also tasteful player who’s steeped in jazz and an alumnus of Anna Ash’s University of Michigan-schooled extended family of supporting musicians. His playing is spot-on every time, and he as he adds color and melodic counterpoint that is always on point and never flashy. And Geneva, who was unfortunately not able to participate in the interview, was at least able to join in for the performance of “Kazoo” at the end of the day. Schooled in percussion performance at the University of Miami, Geneva is the engine of the band, taking Doug’s grooves and giving them the thrust of a sturdy and dependable, yet fresh and funky, steam-powered freight train.
Watching all four band members interact, one notices just how together they are personally as well as musically. Seeing how they handled their interview just makes it even more apparent. This could be the intangible something else that makes their music so irresistible, and the same thing that is likely to make their upcoming debut EP (due out in January 2012) potentially one of the most exciting and enjoyable new releases to which we can all look forward.
A note about the performance:
Though Geneva wasn’t able to join in on the interview due to a prior commitment, she arrived just in time for the performance, all smiles and ready to go. And the song she jumped into, “Kazoo,” illustrates just how much is happening rhythmically with Bells. A percussion loop by Sandra sets up the song, and as Doug comes in, Derek adds color as Geneva ties it all up. The loving vocal harmonies of Doug and Sandra are the cherry on top. And as far as the lingering feeling at the heart of this music, Sandra’s little dance at the very end of the performance basically says it all.