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by Go! music critic Bill Kramer

December 10, 2009

www.newsleader.com

Staunton News Leader

Larry Keel and Natural Bridge has become such a national act that the talented guitarist and his band members don’t get to play in their native Valley as much as they’d like.

But on the heels of the group’s fine recent show at the Mockingbird comes another home appearance, this time at Clementine CafĂ© in Harrisonburg. Just finishing a tour of the Pacific Northwest, Keel and company will return to entertain its large local following with more music off its newest recording, “Backwoods.”

The title of the CD reflects much of Keel’s philosophy of keeping a low profile and letting his music do the talking for him. It also is in keeping with his Blue Ridge Mountain roots, which moved him to respect what he calls “American Mountain Music,” bluegrass foundations on which he has added his considerable colorings.

The CD was produced by Keel’s picking buddy, Keller Williams, himself a trail-blazing guitarist. Keel’s wife, Jenny, Natural Bridge’s bassist, joined the pair a few years back to record “Grass,” which explored bluegrass and beyond. Their friendship has grown, and the new CD allows everyone in Natural Bridge to shine.

It features an eclectic mix of tunes, including covers such as the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son,” Tom T. Hall’s “Faster Horses” and Kenny Baker’s “Bluegrass in the Backwoods,” but also spotlights fresh originals by the band.

Mandolin player Mark Schimick contributes “Ghost Driver” and “Swarmin’ Bees,” while banjo player Jason Flournoy adds “Bohemian Reel.” These tunes hold up nicely alongside the three songs Keel penned and “Diamond Break,” which Keel co-wrote with Chris Jones.

As usual, Keel and Natural Bridge continue to redefine what new acoustic and bluegrass entail, throwing into the mix dashes of jazz and rock influences that brew a sound full of energy and nuance.

The current incarnation of the group has been together for some time, and its studio prowess on “Backwoods” is topped only by the member’s chemistry on stage. Keel’s music has always featured permutations, and his improvisational take on anything he plays is enhanced greatly by the fact the rest of the group is with him at every turn, adding its own touch.

Music for Keel has always been about collaboration, be it with Natural Bridge, Keller Williams or the many luminaries he has performed with, including Tony Rice, Darrel Scott, Sam Bush, Drew Emmitt and a whole roster of other noted musicians.

One of the highest compliments he’s ever received was when bluegrass patriarch Del McCoury ranked him as one of the three guitarists he liked best, keeping company with Hank Garland and Tony Rice. That’s pretty high praise from a man who has played with the best in his four decades of making music.

To show respect for Keel and Natural Bridge, McCoury made sure the group was booked at the very first Delfest, his bluegrass festival in Maryland. McCoury also included a cover of Keel’s “Mountain Song” on his 2005 Grammy-winning disc “The Company We Keep.”

But while Keel’s individual reputation grows among his peers, it’s with Natural Bridge that he can lean into the songs and make some of the most interesting music of his career.

If You Go:
  • what: Larry Keel and Natural Bridge in Concert
  • when:Saturday, 9 p.m.
  • where: Clementine Cafe, Harrisonburg
  • tickets: $10
  • more info: (540) 801-8881 or http://www.clementinecafe.com
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