Chasing down the voodoo of Larry Keel’s bluegrass guitar

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Guitarist Larry Keel pushes the limitations of bluegrass.  Photo: Bright Life Photography. Guitarist Larry Keel pushes the limitations of bluegrass. Photo: Bright Life Photography.

It’s Floydfest, June 2003.  The evening is thick and balmy, draping the rolling Floyd County landscape in shimmery violets and blues. Along the festival’s arterial corridor, despite main stage bands kicking into their second sets, an exodus was underway. I remember it distinctly: the wild-eyed shirtless young man materializing, catching hold of the girl dancing along just before me, jabbering into her ear—that startled expression lighting up her face as he rushed her promptly away.

Under a spell of curiosity, I tailed them. Snaking along through the crowd, moments later I found myself at a tiny stage—the sort of cutesy venue reserved for folksy, singer-songwriters. Defying reason, across the humble bandstand, an array of bluegrass musicians were picking away. Some of them instantly recognizable— Daryl Anger and Vassar Clements, for example.

The music was soft, dark, palpable as smoke. I was mesmerized. I felt entranced, unable to resist, wooed by the soundtrack of some gypsy ritual. Then up stepped the guitar man.

Hiply spectacled, eyes squeezed shut, lips pursed—a portrait of intensity. Like an alchemist, chasing down the voodoo, hovering before the condenser mic, his notes came on darkly. Flashing this wild prankster grin, the man leaned over his guitar, gave a nod, and the band kicked into high gear with something joyous, raucous, galloping.

And presto, voila, abra-cadabra: the night exploded. The crowd—by now so large that the festival’s two main-stages had literally shut down—erupted in a mania of jig-dancing. “My god,” I cried, clasping, vigorously shaking the shoulders of a nearby elderly dancer, “who the hell is this guy?” The man ceased his dancing and bent closer. “That’s Keel,” he hissed, adding, in a conspiratorial tone, “Larry Keel.” Then, squinting, fixing his gaze he said, “You done got yourself experienced.”

The problem with attempting to profile a musician of Larry Keel’s caliber is that his art—the depth of its effect—lies largely beyond the scope of concrete description. It is sensual, metaphysical, a thing to be experienced in the moment. Like all the truly great improvisers, sure, you can spout some high critical jargon, but the fact remains. Without marching your ass to a show and experiencing the music itself, you may as well be staring at a cat and calling it a giraffe.

Each Larry Keel show is different with its own peculiar hue of magic, unique, impossible to replicate vibe. Keel is doing for bluegrass what Hendrix did for rock, what Miles did for  jazz—exploring the uncharted possibilities, defying the limitations of a deeply established musical form. Keel’s music is often so creatively innovative that it is frequently misunderstood, overlooked and underestimated. Watching him perform alongside such legendary statesmen as Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, and Daryl Anger he has never failed to earn not only a tip of the hat, but also one hell of a grin and a nod. Whether you’re looking to dig what’s happening out there on the edges of the bluegrass avant-garde, or just wanting to get your buzz on to some astounding music, Larry Keel is a sure bet.—Eric J. Wallace

Larry Keel performs in Keller & The Keels at The Festy on October 5.

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