King Bee is a down-home blues band, harmonica player and all. Being based in Miami isn't easy for it. That's not the sort of sound hipster kids and new wave punk fans, the ones so often credited with supporting rock around here, pick up on.
But last month King Bee showed it doesn't need them anyway. At a release party in October for its debut album, Only On Good Days, 300 heads crammed into Tobacco Road's hot and humid second-floor area. Many of them knew the words to the band's songs by heart. The album had actually circulated for months before its official release: The band members finished producing the record themselves last spring with their own money, manufactured 1000 CDs themselves, and sold out the entire lot through their Website, www.KingBeeHive.com, and at gigs. Judging by the size of the crowd that night, people had been listening to it.
Still the band knows its real chance for success lies out on the open road. Major labels won't sign them until a significant fan base is developed through touring, no matter how good they sound. That's the way it is for the blues bands they model themselves after. Their style is a streetwise take, full of improvisation and jazz elements, on the Allman Brothers Band's brand of Americana. They got their name from Slim Harpo's classic rockabilly cut, "I'm a King Bee," a song covered by Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, and many others.
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Sitting at a table during a recent night at the Road as he downs drinks with the rest of the band, Angel Suarez says, without batting an eye, "We want to put ourselves along those lines." He's a bearded, laid-back cat with a voice so low and raspy, you'd hardly think he was a vocalist until you heard him sing. "We have a devoted fan base that keeps growing, showing up, and that's what keeps us going. We're that type of band, a live band, a touring band."
They also pride themselves on a repertoire filled with good tunes. Only On Good Days is heartfelt, full of stories about life's little and no-so-little things, like lost love, old friends, and yearning for a deeper sense of being. That sometimes gives it a melancholy feel, even though most of the songs are upbeat. "It's funny to see other perspectives on our music," observes Suarez, who writes most of the lyrics. "Some people take the songs to be about loss of hope for everything, but they're actually full of hope. Our songs are about reaching someplace better than where you're at now."
Today's version of King Bee was molded through more than two years of trials and tribulations. Originally Suarez and Pete Capo had a ten-piece jam band, complete with a brass section, in mind when they started the group in 2001. In the beginning, that's what they got. But trying to split the $60 they were paid for shows ten ways sucked. So out went a squad of Costa Rican horn players. Now King Bee plays with guest horns and keyboards on recordings and at gigs; some of them, like keyboardist Fernando Perdomo and trombone player Carlos Avila, join the band a couple of times a month. Money remains an issue. Funds come from sales of CDs (which go for ten dollars), but it all goes back into the operation: manufacturing more CDs and promotional materials, and organizing shows like the record-release party, the latter of which cost the band close to $1000.
Last year the band played with ex-Black Crowes bassist Sven Pipien, who brought with him a niche of fans and a lot of knowledge about the music industry. Suarez says Pipien's presence validated their potential. But he admits that the bassist, a onetime member of a top-of-the-heap multiplatinum band, was jaded about the situation. "You ask me what it's like to play for five to fifty people -- absolutely normal," recalls Suarez. "For him it was heartbreaking. He was always lamenting about not being where he once was."
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After a mere seven months together, Pipien and the band parted ways once the former missed a gig (which was part of the reason he was booted from the Crowes in the first place). That made room for the return of Jaime Abigantus, King Bee's original bassist before he temporarily quit the group and moved to the Big Apple. He had hoped to break into the New York rock scene, but he says he quickly learned that "artists in New York play for themselves, not for the good of a band. King Bee is special, we play for each other."
In the current lineup Suarez sings and beats the conga drums, Capo handles lead guitar, Abigantus is the bassist, Sam Levine plays the drums, and Eric Garcia, who also serves as the band's charismatic promoter, blows the harmonica. Garcia joined King Bee a year ago after noticing that the former harmonica player sounded like "sawing a cat." He offered to sit in on a set they were playing at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale. They obliged, and Garcia's been playing with them ever since. He quickly imprinted his stop-and-go harmonica riffs onto the band's musical identity, poking and threading through the music with a teasing precision.
Last April Garcia put together a show at the Beach's now-defunct Billboardlive called Band Miami; King Bee opened for Fishbone and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. The concert got a terrific response from a packed house. Garcia strongly believes Miami's rock scene will thrive if established acts come to the area more consistently, as lesser-known bands get exposure through opening slots on big-ticket shows.
Meanwhile King Bee is giving back to the fans who are showing up now. Recently they organized a $25 bus ride -- complete with a beer keg onboard -- to take fans from Titanic Brewery in Coral Gables, where they often play, to the Culture Room to watch them open for Mofro. They've also proved to be "king" merchandisers by selling everything from T-shirts to lighters with their striped, shadowy King Bee insignia. They know that they have to be creative promoters if they want to expand their fan base; just handing out flyers doesn't work. But maybe fat jams and a kick-ass record will.