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The sweet sounds of musical success
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)
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.
Black-Eyed Susan is now feeling extremely confident -- a change that group members largely attribute to the bonding they experienced on a spur-of-the-moment road trip they took last year.
"We want to get on the road again. We're a traveling band," says keyboardist Aaron Levy, 23, a University of Maryland, College Park graduate who occasionally works as a substitute high-school teacher.
Late last summer, the quartet abandoned college or part-time jobs and took a nearly two-month cross-country road trip, trying to find gigs as they went along. When they couldn't find a booking, they'd improvise, such as when they did an acoustic jam session in the streets of St. Louis, Mo.
Black-Eyed Susan made a conscious decision to gear its music more toward the rock genre after the owner of a Los Angeles club advised the members to narrow their musical focus. The eclectic style of the band's past ranged from funk to bluegrass.
Toward the end of the trip, the group had three days to drive from a show in San Francisco to a gig in Vermont. The reception in New England was so positive that the guys have played shows in Vermont every month since October. They sold more than 200 CDs at one show alone last month.
But the shows up north have nothing on their best gig so far: performing in 1999 before a near-sellout crowd at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia as openers for legendary rockers Crosby, Stills and Nash. Black-Eyed Susan has also opened for Santana at Merriweather.
The band gives a diverse live show: The guys will play chill-out melodies one minute and then launch into a seven-minute, Allman Brothers Band-style instrumental the next. Most of their songs are originals, but they like to throw in the occasional Jimi Hendrix or Phish tune.
Black-Eyed Susan will be Heading back into the studio "sometime soon" to begin recording its fourth LP, the follow-up to last year's Rudbeckia.
You'll be hearing plenty more from this band if things continue to go its way. "Our goal is to spread out all over the world," Markowitz says. "Where we live is inconsequential."
Next local gigs
Some time in April. Check www.black-eyedsusan.org.
Matt Ferenschak, lead singer and guitar player for this folky rock band, woke up early one morning in January to a pleasant surprise.
"I woke up one day and heard myself singing on the radio," he says. "It was such a cool experience."
Two of Woodswork's songs, "Memories" and "For What I've Led," have been receiving regular spins on WTMD 89.7, a public-radio station broadcast from Towson University.
"To have a radio station embrace you and put you into regular rotation is more than a local band can ask for," says Ferenschak, 23, who holds a degree in psychology from Towson and is a graduate student at Loyola College.
Woodswork, which was formed in 2001, stands apart from other up-and-coming club bands most notably because it includes a violinist, Eugene Yun, and a female member, pianist and singer Lindsay Kuczinski. Rounding out the group are drummer Tommy Smith and guitarist and vocalist Greg Ferenschak, Matt's brother.
The band, whose sound is a cross between the mellow rock of the Dave Matthews Band and the jam group Rusted Root, combines thoughtful, well-crafted lyrics with hard-driving beats.
"Would I be so in love with this world if I wasn't in love with you?" Kuczinski and Matt Ferenschak croon on "For What I've Led," the standout track on 2002's Life in Dead Trees, the group's six-song debut album.
Woodswork will more than likely return to the studio this summer and have a new album out in the fall, depending on financial circumstances, Ferenschak says.
"To start out as a local band is not the easiest thing in the world to do," he says. "You can play for 1,000 people one night and then four people in a bar the next."
After playing "too many bad gigs to remember," the band members got their big break last September when they were asked to open at the Towson Center for Vanessa Carlton, a 2003 Grammy nominee for Best New Artist.
While Woodswork mostly does shows in the Baltimore area, the band recently expanded its touring territory to include northern Virginia, Philadelphia and New York City.
"New York City has treated us very well," Ferenschak says, adding that the group has given some of its best performances in the Big Apple.
Woodswork's members have been itching to make performing music their full-time job.
"Things keep looking up," Ferenschak says. "As long as we don't hit a big plateau or come down a hill, we'll give it a full-time go. I think we have a shot if we give it our all."
Next local gigs
March 6: Recher Theatre, 512 York Road, Towson, 9 p.m.
April 11: Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson (no time given)
April 27: Bayou Blues Cafe, 8133A Honeygo Blvd., White Marsh, 8 p.m.