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Live Review // New Earth Music Hall // Athens, GA // Oct. 9, 2009

posted October 27, 2009

-Review and photos by John Barrett

Performer Magazine’s Blog

Bluegrass has never been my favorite style of music. Although I understand the down-home vibe it channels, it’s always seemed to me a restrictive genre, and most of the bands I’ve heard blend together indistinctively. So when I ventured out to a bluegrass show at New Earth, I wasn’t exactly holding my breath.

Fortunately, the Virginia-based progressive bluegrass band Larry Keel & Natural Bridge completely surpassed my expectations. Whereas I expected a concert filled with predictable, countrified chord progressions and an emphasis on overly cheery vocals, these guys turned the usual conventions of the genre on its head.

larry keel3perfmag

photo by John Barrett

Comprising Larry Keel (acoustic guitar/vocals), Jenny Keel (upright bass), Mark Schimick (mandolin/vocals) and Jason Flournoy (banjo), the instrumental setup was very much akin to a traditional bluegrass band — making the musical contrast all the more unexpected. Of course the foursome incorporated some of the sunny, homespun vocal harmonies that define the bluegrass genre, but they were sparsely utilized. Refreshingly, they focused on intense instrumental jams, during which they tossed solo passages back and forth at dizzying speeds.

larry keel2perfmag

photo by John Barret

Larry Keel, Schimick and Flournoy all displayed stunning virtuosity on their respective instruments. Keel, replete with a beard that could house a bird’s nest, was the clear leader of the group, driving each jam with rapid-fire melodic lines and arpeggios that would be challenging to replicate even on an electric guitar. Schimick and Flournoy pulled their weight as well, rising up to match Keel’s insane speeds. This three-pronged attack created a flurry of motion in the group’s sound comparable to flamenco music. Jenny Keel’s pulsating bass lines provided a firm anchor to the whirlwind, and she also served as the group’s mouthpiece onstage.

larry keel1perfmag

photo by John Barrett

To everyone in the audience’s surprise, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge even got heavy, with a sudden surge of distorted guitars and vigorous, off-kilter riffage that recalled progressive rock.

And in the vein of the freewheeling, all-embracing nature of bluegrass, the band invited no less than 10 musicians onto the stage for the explosive encore, who wielded instruments ranging from tenor saxophone to melodica.

-Review and photos by John Barrett Posted by PerformerMag at 5:40 PM

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