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Kelly sings for the extremely raucous industrial quartet BLESSEDBETHYNAME, and he says he's learned to use his emotional swings as fodder for his group's maniacal performances. Though it has only played seven gigs and has yet to release a single note of recorded music, BLESSEDBETHYNAME has earned a huge rabid cult on the strength of these performances. At its third gig, as headliners outside Boston's in Tempe, the group drew an estimated 580 people.
Kelly doesn't think of BLESSEDBETHYNAME performances as shows or gigs, but rather as rituals, ceremonies that act out some message he and his bandmates are trying to convey. Every performance has a different title, like "The Awakening," "Festival of the Flesh" or "Blood Puppet Ritual." At the latter show, Kelly cut his left arm onstage ("I lost two pints of blood") apparently convinced that offering up his hemoglobin to angst-ridden suburban kids would cleanse him of his need to hurt himself offstage. "I replaced a horrible image with a positive image," he says.
If the notion sounds strange, it's all part of BLESSEDBETHYNAME's theory that by turning raw experience into ritual, you purify and exalt the experience. Though he invokes Christ's name often ("the coolest guy ever"), and his band's bio refers to each new song as "scripture," he's careful not to let BLESSEDBETHYNAME be pegged as a Christian band. Rather, he sees the group as a vehicle for unabashed crazy exorcism, where holiness and evil can be released, mosh together in the same pit, and create a new kind of divinity.
All this can be a bit hard to swallow, but a few minutes with Kelly makes one fact clear: He means it, man. A New Mexico native and former Navy enlisted man, he came to the Valley to live with a sister, and bonded with guitarist Tim Ringgold and keyboardist Scott Swai, expatriates from Connecticut and New Jersey, respectively. "We didn't know each other, but we came here for the same reason: broken lives, broken bands, came here," Kelly says.
According to Kelly, Ringgold's past was particularly harrowing, as his five best friends were all murdered by a landlord who followed the killing by burning their bodies. In light of such a horrific tale, some observers may have a hard time understanding the band's seeming celebration of violence. At one performance, Kelly offered the gift of a samurai sword to the audience member who best attracted the band's attention. And, as a preshow ritual, he kills four chickens, whose parts he rubs and ties into his hair, along with a beheaded snake. The chicken sacrifices drew plenty of unwanted attention outside Valley Art Theatre before the band's New Times Music Showcase performance on April 26. Kelly contends that, much as he does for his own pain, he takes the chickens' suffering and transforms it into something celebratory.
"I've been unable to get a lot of people to understand this, but these chickens are raised, fed and bred for one thing: our need for food," he says. "If I was a rooster about to get my neck wrung, head chopped off and sold to the market, I'd be like, 'Baby, it sounds much better to be part of this ritual than being grabbed by my feet and thrown into the back of a truck like the last one.'"
All this sounds a bit reminiscent of the Manson family's claims that they killed Sharon Tate because they loved her, but Kelly delivers his spiel with the wide-eyed sincerity of a true believer. If his band is ultimately just another in a long line of shamanistic shock mongers, going back to Jim Morrison, and including Wendy O. Williams, Crust, Gwar, and Marilyn Manson, don't tell him that. If his band's music is derivative breakneck bile, it's hard for the kids to hear that when they're focusing on the multihued body paint and strobe lighting.
A guitarist with no previous singing experience, Kelly screams with such ferocity that he often sounds as though he's going to heave a lung. In fact, he says he gets so pumped up onstage that he finds himself on the verge of vomiting. Whatever BLESSEDBETHYNAME's musical merits, Kelly suggests that anything with such intensity of purpose can't be denied.
"In everything we do and everything we deliver, we're giving our fans a portal into something, and at all times giving ultimate thanks for the fact that we're able to leap and dance," he says. "I can't see how anybody can have this kind of power and not make a good mark. We're allowing people to see how simple and pure life is."