Gripping the microphone on stage at the Cumberland Wine Festival last month, Kelly Bell's voice boomed. "We gon' play what's called the Phat Blues," he announced, his dreadlocks spilling onto his bright orange T-shirt.
"That's a little bit of Phat and a whole lot of blues."
So begins a two-hour stretch of a funk, R&B, rock and blues blend that has been dismissed by some as a gimmick, or a blues impersonation at best--but heralded by thousands of young fans as the only thing standing between the blues and obscurity.
Since the Kelly Bell Band was formed in 1995 by its charismatic lead singer, its popularity has scaled new heights on the Baltimore music scene. The band, which includes bassist Brett Sharbaugh, Kirk Myers on keyboards, Erik True on drums and Ira Mayfield on guitar, was named the Mid-Atlantic's Best Blues Band for two years in a row by Music Monthly, a Baltimore-based magazine.
Their 1998 CD, entitled "Phat Blues Music," has outsold every local band in recent memory, according to Record and Tape Traders, a Baltimore-based music store chain. And the group's Web site, phatblues.com, has more than 10,000 hits from across the United States.
This summer, the group was booked for performances up and down the East Coast. And they will be among the youngest players in the Seventh Annual Bluebird Blues Festival, which takes place Sunday at Prince George's Community College in Largo.
Bell, a blues fan since age 12, worked as a club bouncer, dabbled in heavy metal music and studied social work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. When the D.C. native founded the group nearly five years ago, he set out to make the blues accessible to his peers.
The blues "helped me through some hard times when I was young," said Bell, who still retains his day job counseling emotionally-disturbed adolescents. "A lot of folks didn't think that young folks could appreciate the blues. My answer to that is that it hasn't been presented to them in the right fashion."
Thus Phat Blues was born. Bell registered "Phat Blues Music" as a copyright, a phrase that combines the contemporary slang term for "good" with the American music genre.
The CD "Phat Blues Music" is filled with original material anchored by Bell's deep, sonorous voice and heavily backed by funky bass grooves. A handful of tracks are slow and sentimental, bringing to mind the traditional blues standards. But the songs are typically louder, faster in tempo and more aggressive. A Go Go interlude and a few rap verses also add to its modern sound.
But the Kelly Bell Band is most revered for its live performances. The band often invokes call-and-response similar to hip-hop artists, and its nightclub performances include other interactive features that go beyond typical blues supper-club fare. For example, the band often hosts "freaky dance" contests featuring half-naked women from the audience gyrating on tabletops.
Half-naked women notwithstanding, the musical combination has not enamored the Kelly Bell Band to some traditional blues fans. At the D.C. Blues Fest this summer, where only the most diehard of blues fans braved the flash floods at the Carter Barron Amphitheater to hear a free concert, just the mention of the band's name drew plenty of grumbles.
"A little frantic would be what I'd say," sniffed Chris Kirsch, 44, of the D.C. Blues Society.
"The hard-core blues fans aren't going to see him," said 51-year-old Nick Dale, who is also a member of the D.C. Blues Society. Dale says the hype surrounding the Kelly Bell Band reached such a feverish pitch a few months ago that he felt compelled to check them out at a Wheaton jazz spot.
Dale wasn't impressed.
"It draws out the young people to the blues, so it's fine by me. But it's not my thing," Dale said.
In an age when so many bands struggle to find an edge to distinguish them from a sea of pop groups, some say the Phat Blues could be just another marketing tool.
"The blues is a pretty elastic term," said Ron Weinstock, the 49-year-old editor of the D.C. Blues Society's newsletter. "To some extent, its become more of a marketing tool than a genre."
Bell dismisses the grousing as sour grapes.
"They forget that blues was presented to them in the appropriate fashion of that time, but they've got to let it grow, man," Bell said.
"How many times are you going to hear 'Mustang Sally' presented in the exact same fashion? They've got to let the blues grow. If not, people are going to think about it being the same 12-bar stuff that every wedding blues band plays."
If that were the case, 18-year-old Colin Peppard would have never discovered the magic of the blues. He first heard the Kelly Bell Band through his swim coach in New Jersey. Now a freshman at the University of Virginia, he's an enthusiastic fan of both the Kelly Bell Band and the traditional blues.
"It is true that Kelly Bell's music has a definite funk influence," said Peppard, who also plays the guitar as a hobby. "It also has something less tangible that is the essence of the blues. . . . I get as much from Kelly Bell as I do from B.B. King or John Lee Hooker. Anybody who sings with as much soul and passion as Kelly Bell is not using a marketing gimmick."
Hooking listeners in Peppard's generation is key to the blues' survival, according to Barry Pearson, a University of Maryland professor who's written several books on the blues.
"The blues is a living thing," Pearson said. "It's kept alive by young artists merging it together with new contemporary styles. My sense is that things have to keep changing or they die. Every generation wants to say 'my music is the best,' but it's really a continuum."
Wayne Kahn is the 46-year-old owner of a local blues label, Right on Rhythm Records. He checked out the Kelly Bell Band at a recent blues festival and was blown away by the band's rendition of "Use Me," a top-40 pop song originally performed by Bill Withers.
In the original version, Withers' sheepish tone humbly asks a woman to keep mistreating him. But Kahn said the song was barely recognizable after Bell gave it the Phat Blues treatment.
"[Kelly Bell] looked as if he was about to eat the microphone, he was screaming into it so loud. He was like, 'I'm into pain, keep using me.' "
Kahn admires the band's funk energy and youthful style. Witnessing the band's popularity with younger audiences gives him hope for both the past and the future of the blues. As long as the band draws in the young fans, he figures it will encourage those same audiences to revisit the classic blues artists that laid the groundwork for the Phat Blues.
"Hopefully," he said, "they will eventually come back to the source."
CAPTION: The blues "helped me through some hard times when I was young," says charismatic blues singer Kelly Bell.