The perfect swarm

The King Bees’ 1996 album, Pollenatin’ (Tramp), reveals one blues band heavily immersed in, well … pleasure.

The title track exposes guitarist Rob “Hound Dog” Baskerville’s slick guitar pickin’ coupling with classic harmonica work by Jerry “Boogie” McCain; on the kinda-nasty “Plenty Big Love,” singer/songwriter/bassist Penny “Queen Bee” Zamagni proclaims that size does, indeed, matter.

At any rate, the Bees’ signature elixir of tradition, precision and camp has made the Boone-based band a plenty big draw on the blues circuit.

Baskerville grew up in Lenoir, N.C., besotted by music. His dad drove him to hear Count Basie and other big bands as they came through the area, and his sister loved the Allman Brothers Band and Jimi Hendrix.

“They were always looking at the differences in the music, and I saw the similarities,” Baskerville remembers. “The blues was the common theme throughout both. I always knew I wanted to be a musician, and that was the music that spoke to me.”

The King Bees are more fun than feminist, although “Run Your Reputation Down” brings in some of that Saffire-uppity-blues-women feeling — men, you’d better treat your women right or the whole town will know about it. And “Under My Skin” is the angry blues equivalent of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” thanks to the soulful vocal stirrings of Queen Bee, who rules a deep glut of emotions: In “Poisonous,” she warns suitors that she might strike at any second, unprovoked, while on “Monkeyshines,” she realizes that she’s blown it with her honey, lost her good thing. She feels bad, sure — but this ebullient queen is far from dead.

Sporting a large, hollow-body guitar, harmonica and upright bass, the Bees literally embody the traditional blues, diving head-first into all varieties of the genre — from the barroom-jump sound of “Buzzin’ at the Beehive” to the sassy swing of “It’s Tight” to the drama of Bessie Smith’s “Mean Old Bedbug Blues.” The 10 Zamagni originals on Pollenatin’ include deep-blues laments, Big Easy rhythms, Chicago-style shuffles and rockabilly — a tasty buffet of American roots music. “Stuck In A Groove” decries modern technology, while “A Little Light” offers a spiritual lift.

“There’s a lot about this band that’s serious,” asserts Baskerville. “Passion for the music, dedication to digging deep and creating a unique sound, devotion to those from whom the music passed to us, and professionalism.”

The King Bees were founded in 1987 by Baskerville and Zamagni, and earned their wings sharing stages with such blues legends as Bo Diddley, Jerry McCain, Tinsley Ellis, Billy Branch, Mojo Buford, Big Jack Johnson, Sam Carr and Ronnie Earl. They recorded Coming Back Strong (Erwin Music) and Honey In The Hive (Classic Records) with Chicago Bob Nelson, The Blues Ain’t Left Yet (Global Village) with Neal Pattman, and a four-song cassette with North Carolina guitarist/vocalist Thomas Gable. On tour, the King Bees feature drummer Eric Medvich, a strong blues and rock player from Detroit.

“He can swing, and he’s younger — which helps kick us in the butt,” says Baskerville, who once noted: “We’ve proven we can raise the roof at prestigious concert halls like the Lincoln Center, shake the stage at European festivals, and bring the crowd to their knees in a juke-joint way down South.”

Through their associations with noted blues players in the United States and a nonstop appetite for touring, The King Bees came to the attention of the Amsterdam-based label Tramp. And with the release of Boogie Buzz in late 1994, the band was suddenly an international recording act. The follow-up, Pollenatin’, showcases blues greats McCain, Nelson, Roy Roberts, and Neal Pattman — whose vocal and harmonica work on “Prisoner Blues” is the real deal.

Local musician Andy Corn (Ras Allen & The Lions, Dave Foraker & Jive Patch) added piano and organ to Pollenatin’.

“The King Bees are a lot of fun,” he enthuses. “They do a real old-school blues vibe.” He goes on to divulge an insider’s view of the hive: “Their house is very bluesy, with lots of candles and leopard prints and voodoo charms and stuff.”

Gary Erwin, who DJs Charleston, S.C.’s Blues in the Night radio show, expounds, “They have lovingly embraced the blues in all its traditional power and creative potential. … Ferocious guitar … a trailer load of hot licks and vintage tone … [and] passionate but daredevilish fretwork will surely move Baskerville further into the ranks of blues-guitar heroism.”

Baskerville himself, in a marginally humbler assessment, has described the band simply as “folks having a hell of a good time putting on one of the hottest and most entertaining shows anywhere.”

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