The sweet sounds of musical success

A work-hard, play-hard attitude is instrumental in bands' climb

Cover Story

March 06, 2003|By Mike Morris | Mike Morris,SUN STAFF

They've paid their dues and now it's their time to shine.

From playing in the street to playing in empty bars, these local bands have seen it all.

Now, their songs are being spun on the radio, and they're booking high-profile gigs.

Below are the tales of three local bands: one well-established in the Baltimore area since the mid-'90s, another growing its fan base since 1997 and a third making its mark in less than two years.

Despite being at different stages in their musical careers, these bands have an important common thread - they're all on the rise.

Kelly Bell Band

To say that Kelly Bell, lead singer and percussionist of the Kelly Bell Band, has a strong work ethic would be an understatement.

Case in point: Last year, the blues-infused band was playing at a college bar in North Carolina when Bell, who had a 104-degree fever that night, asked his band to play an instrumental so he could leave the stage to vomit - only to return moments later.

Want further proof?

Just days before the band was to begin recording at Towson's Recher Theatre for a live album, Bell fell ill with a sore throat. He went to see a doctor and was told not to use his voice. So he didn't utter a word for two days - until he took the Recher stage on Valentine's Day night.

"How dare I take advantage of their time?" Bell asks, referring to his audience. "I've gone to the hospital after shows because I give 'em everything I got."

Bell's work philosophy seems to have paid off. His band, which was founded in 1995, has sold more than 60,000 copies of its first three albums, and both a live album and a cover album of blues classics are in the works.

"It's an opportunity for us to pay homage to the great blues cats," Bell said of the latter album from his Reisterstown home.

A fateful encounter with blues legend Bo Diddley is actually responsible for the formation of the band. Bell, an aspiring musician, was asked to organize a backup band for Diddley, who was set to play the Eight by Ten Club in Federal Hill in 1995. So he did.

Bell originally wanted to call the group the Baltimore Blues All-Stars, but a friend urged him to name it the Kelly Bell Band. The group members received such a warm reception playing with Diddley that they soon were in demand to play other gigs.

The quintet, featuring Kirk Myers on keyboard, Erik True on drums, Ira Mayfield Jr. on guitar and Matt Carroll on bass, has since shared the stage with the likes of James Brown, Ziggy Marley and Blues Traveler.

Despite playing with well-known acts, Bell humbly recalls the band playing at a little festival that glorified an infamous pork product.

Just four years ago, the Kelly Bell Band headlined the Apple-Scrapple Festival in Bridgeville, Del., where they played in front of a deep-fried-scrapple stand, singing to an audience screaming for Lynyrd Skynyrd covers.

Bell, who is African-American, once turned down the chance to open for Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Pier 6 Concert Pavilion because he could not be guaranteed by Skynyrd's management that the Southern rock band's trademark Confederate flag would not be on display during his band's set.

"If you put passion before principle, you're going to lose," Bell says.

The band's ambition is to get as many people as possible - Skynyrd fans included - exposed to what it calls "phat blues."

What exactly is phat blues?

"It's Muddy Waters driving Black Sabbath's bus to Luciano Pavarotti's concert." In other words, "It's whatever we want it to be," Bell says.

For now, the group will continue to wail the Delta blues at more than 200 live shows a year, in venues from Boston to Atlanta.

Aiming high, the Kelly Bell Band dreams of becoming MTV's next big sensation.

"I'm not content with anything," Bell says. "I won't be content until everyone has all of our records."

Next local gigs

March 16: Claddagh Pub, 2918 O'Donnell St., 6 p.m.

March 22: Thunderdome, 3612 S. Hanover St., 9:30 p.m.

March 29: Stone Cellar, 9445 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 10 p.m.

April 4: Recher Theatre, 512 York Road, Towson, 8 p.m. (live recording)

Black-Eyed Susan

By day, they're teaching schoolchildren and waiting tables. By night, they're opening for Santana and jamming in front of the masses.

So goes the life of the four guys from Owings Mills who make up the band Black-Eyed Susan.

"I wouldn't trade what I do for a second to sit behind a desk," says David Markowitz, 22, lead singer and bass player.

He and other members of the band were in good spirits after a recent gig at the Recher Theatre in Towson. As they hung around backstage, they discussed the journey their group has taken since it was formed in 1997.

Only two years ago, Black-Eyed Susan was "way on the rocks" after losing its female lead singer. A year later, its drummer left. But last year, Adam Chase, brother of guitarist Matt Chase, joined the group as its drummer.

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