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Thursday, February 13

Review and Photos: Larry Keel Acoustic Trio – Memphis, TN - Newby’s - 2/07/2014

Larry Keel has been one of the most dynamic, innovative flat-picking acoustic guitarists on the scene for over three decades. Through a wide variety of projects over the years, Larry has developed an incredible sense for song selection in his sets. Besides his solo work and his band Natural Bridge, Larry has collaborated with many jamband and rock heavyweights, such as Yonder Mountain String Band, Keller Williams, Railroad Earth, members of the String Cheese Incident, Little Feat and Leftover Salmon. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Larry Keel’s work. I only knew who he was because of his project with Keller Williams, Keller and the Keels. I won’t even pretend to be a bluegrass expert. In fact, I didn’t know a single song that was played the entire night. But that’s what is so great about good live music. If it’s done right, it doesn’t matter if you know any of the songs. I was immersed in Larry’s acoustic picking from the moment the first note was played, mesmerized by his speed and grace.
First, however, Devil Train, a local hometown favorite of the Memphis music scene, opened up the show with some traditional style bluegrass coupled with modern progressive jammin’. Although I only got there for the last couple songs, the crowd was definitely moving. I’ve seen Devil Train a few times before, and those guys know how it’s done!
Keel, along with fellow guitarist and banjo player Will Lee and upright bassist Jenny Keel, took the stage and began the evening with a slow, melodic tune. Larry’s quirky sense of humor in between songs created an extremely comfortable, down-home atmosphere. Normally, I would refer to the artist using their last name (in this case, Keel), but Larry made me feel so comfortable with him throughout the night that I almost felt I knew him. The trio kept it slow for the first few songs emitting a passionate palate of music. Beginning around the fourth song, the band picked it up and started to get dirty. Dueling guitars, beautiful vocal harmonies and incredible dynamics made up the next few songs, expanding the possibilities of the evening. Next, Larry’s fast-pickin’ genius truly began to shine, right as Mr. Lee put down his guitar and picked up the banjo for the first time. After a couple of traditional, down and dirty bluegrass tunes, Larry got back on the mic to lighten up the atmosphere again. His gritty southern accent makes you feel like you’re in a cozy tavern on the mountains.
After some cheerful banter, the band started up again, and my mind was immediately blown. All I wrote down in my notes was “Oh it’s on!” All three members of the trio were hot, but Larry’s picking just seemed so natural and effortless. He seemed to be sort of challenging the crowd with his guitar, “Keep up… keep up…” At the same time, however, his performance seemed very modest. He never seemed to be trying to impress anyone. When Mr. Lee was leading, Larry stood back and played his part, and many of the songs that were played didn’t involve any soloing, just pure musical bliss. That being said, I was thoroughly impressed by Larry’s technical abilities. Even over 30 years into his career, you could put him up against any young picker on the scene, and Larry would win out.
About half way through their set, Larry took a second to take off his coat, while Mr. Lee said a few words about the main man. During the first half of the set, Larry had kicked on the flange pedal a couple times, but it was fairly subtle. In the second half of the set, he really put that pedal to the metal.  Pushing the rhelm of the use of the flange in acoustic performance to a level rarely reached before.
Throughout the show, Larry demonstrated his wide variety of musical talents. His song choices ranged from euphoric to dirty, fast-pickin’ to slow and melodic, and funky to traditional. His dynamics were unbelievable, building incredible, apprehensive solos filled with anticipation, and then bringing the energy back down as if there had been no excitement at all. He played with a combination of maturity and emotion that I have never seen. His love for the game soars well above his already incredible technical skills, creating the kind of emotional atmosphere that can only be attained through great live music. Couple all of that with the homey, local atmosphere of the Newby’s Theatre, filled with a magnificent crowd of all ages, and you get one beautiful evening in Memphis. I am very grateful that the Larry Keel Acoustic Trio was able to stop through Memphisa!
Words: Ragin' Randy Harris

Photos: Ellis Jones IV
 ©Grateful Music LLC