The Larry Keel Experience is coming to Augusta Thursday, October 15, heading our way from their hometown of Lexington, Virginia, courtesy of Steampowered Entertainment for a night at Surrey Tavern with special guests Clyde’s on Fire.
An annual fixture at the Aiken Bluegrass Festival, the experience comprises freakishly fast flatpicking frontman, Larry Keel, his wife Jenny Keel on bass, and bluegrass five-string banjoist Will Lee. The beauty of the Larry Keel Experience isn’t just in the music, but also in the connection the band makes with the crowd during its live performances.
Evoking powerful emotions, the Keels and Lee throw themselves into their shows with an energy that is at once genuine and infectious.
Keel attributes his grounding in bluegrass to his upbringing. A family tradition and passion for mountain music compelled the singer-songwriter to forge and ultimately craft his own unique bluegrass-based sound. The Metro Spirit spoke to Larry Keel about the evolution of bluegrass, playing with comedian and banjo-player Steve Martin, and what the future holds for the Larry Keel Experience.
Metro Spirit: I’m personally not that knowledgeable when it comes to bluegrass — particularly bluegrass paired with rock. How would you sell it to someone who hasn’t really been exposed to it?
Larry Keel: Well, bluegrass music is a combination of many styles of music. The oldest part of it probably comes from Irish music that made its way over here. It sorta combined with Texas swing music — a lot of fiddles — and had a little bit of a blues music vibe about it, as well. That combination of music landed in Kentucky and Virginia, and it was about in the 1940s when Bill Monroe decided to classify this style of music and he used the name “bluegrass.”
A lot of people who hear bluegrass for the first time say it always reminds them of sitting around a campfire where they’ve heard a couple of guitars being played. It’s a very comfortable music — very easy to take in.
LK: Yeah, it really does because traditionalists want to keep bluegrass a certain way, and they’re not looking to change it that much. I’m always of the theory that everything needs to grow or it will die off. So, as far as being compared to Jimi Hendrix… I feel my music has a very loud rock ‘n’ roll volume and we’re ultra original and it is beyond classification; I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. Yeah, it sits well with me — I’m very honored to have that said about me. I learned [bluegrass] from my father and my brother, but I heard other sounds and I walk to the beat of my own drum.
MS: Are there other artists you most admire and learn from?
LK: As a kid I learned the styling of Doc Watson and Tony Rice, who is a hero of mine. Later I listened to a lot of Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix and then I got into a lot of jazz like Miles Davis and Oscar Peterson on the piano. I just tried to take little pieces of what I could and make it my own.
MS: Freaking love your cover of “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” and more than I ever liked the original. Which cover stands out as the most fun or exhilarating to perform?
LK: I tend to play my own music as much as possible, but I dearly love to cover The Grateful Dead and I love to do a Bob Marley cover. Something people will hear and relate to, and then hopefully I can pull them over to my side of the aisle.
MS: Steve Martin playing the banjo still feels relatively new and odd for me, but you opened for one of his shows recently. What was he like to play with and what did you play?
LK: Yes, it was with the Steep Canyon Rangers and he plays a lot of music with those guys. It was a surprise because we didn’t know he was going to be there. We got to meet with him, hang out with him and play music with him and talk — a very surreal experience because he’s just one of my total heroes. As a kid he inspired me every day with his funny way of things. It was very neat to sit down with him to pick his brains about bluegrass and the banjo. He totally loves the banjo — he’s a freak about it. We played his Grammy-winning song, “The Crow,” on stage and we sat backstage and picked, talked and laughed and had a great time.
MS: Your flatpicking is ridiculous. Any hand cramps? Have any advice for someone who wants to develop to that level of dexterity?
LK: It’s the same kind of thing as “practice makes perfect.” It’s not always going to be perfect, but you work really hard, find some sound you like and really work at them. Start out slow and keep on practicing and practicing and practicing until you get it. That feels really good, then. Keep on it and keep trying new things.
LK: We’ve been going through this recording process for about a year. It started out where we wanted to have the key members of the experience and we wanted to have some of our friends on the CD, to release something different for everybody. So I started calling some friends up to see if they were interested, and they were and so it’s been about a year’s process to coordinate different studios in order to record our guests. It’s been something else trying to get everybody coordinated, especially when our guests are touring, as well.
With the technology today you can email a file over to them, they can get it and record and email it back to my production engineer. That way we can make sure everybody gets on the CD. We’re so blessed to have some wonderful family and friends in this style of music, and we’re just so thankful they’re joining us on the CD. Folks like Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Keller Williams and Jason Carter, who’s on the fiddle from the Del McCoury Band. And there’s Mike Gugino from Steep Canyon Rangers and Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass.
MS: So it seems like all these years of growing these relationships have culminated in this CD — are you excited about it?
LK: I’m extremely excited about the CD; it’s such an honor to have Del McCoury and Peter Rowan, the original bluegrass stars from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And Sam Bush — what a powerhouse. We’re extremely excited to get this CD in the ears of all our fans.
MS: What should the audience expect from your show in Augusta?
LK: Well, it will be a fully original, highly charged, wild, energetic, crazy show for sure. We just pretty much go out and give it all we got every night, and it’s usually an experience for sure of the highest standard. You won’t be bored; I’ll put it that way. We try to connect as closely as we can with our audience to provide an open door into the magic we’re all a part of.
MS: And what about after the CD? What are you planning?
LK: Up and coming — people can hear many different collaborations and surprises coming in 2016. All kinds of different things. We’re working on a couple of TV and movie soundtracks that we’re excited about and we’re in pre-production for a new CD, a follow-up CD that will be released in 2017.
We’re just super busy and we’re ending the year in Mexico with our friends Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon, and we’re starting the year back up in Florida in February with Keller Williams and then we’re heading to Hawaii straight from there, and then to Colorado for the Winterwondergrass festival, which is a really big one out there. We’re on the ground running and up in the air flying, all the time.
The Larry Keel Experience is coming to Surrey Tavern Thursday, October 15. Doors open at 9 p.m. and tickets can be bought for $10 in advance or $15 the day of show. Surrey Tavern is located at 471 Highland Avenue. Catch Larry on Facebook at facebook.com/LarryKeelFlatpicking or his website larrykeel.com/. More event information is also available at steampoweredentertainment.com/events.