I have a confession to make: even though Larry Keel is my favorite guitar player (my current guitar was even selected because of its similarities to one he used to play), I’ve only seen him perform live once. That performance was with Keller and the Keels, a trio consisting of Keller Williams, Larry, and Jenny Keel. When I found out Larry would be playing within 90-miles of home three times within a month, I was tickled.
For the first performance Larry brought Jenny and another Natural Bridge picker – Will Lee – to the Grant Street Music Room in Clarkesville, GA, performing as the Larry Keel Acoustic Power Trio. I made the long, 75-mile drive from home alone, with a bit of a stressful week of travel facing me. I arrived at the venue in the little town nestled among the North Georgia foothills unsure of what to expect, and when I got there I briefly considered making the drive back home promptly.
The venue is fine. It’s a large restaurant/bar with a stage at the end. Packed tables of noisy patrons filled the room, deadening the sound of the opening act Jason Kenney. The place was so packed I stood in the back near the entrance, a mistake as the bar occupies space to the immediate right, and they were much louder (and less interested in the stage) than the seemingly thousands of people in between me and the stage. A thin wall separates the bar from a bowling alley and the spectacular crashes that occur when the well-honed locals attack the pins. I kept a watchful eye on the area closest to the stage, looking for a chance to steel a seat, but was repeatedly dejected. Still, the people were nice so I decided to stick around in hopes of catching a break and getting a break.
I caught my break shortly before Keel and gang took the stage, as a nice little elderly foursome led by a man in a tie-dye cleared a table right up front. I followed their lead, asked if I could share their table, and they kindly agreed. My nerves eased significantly and the sound upfront was loud enough to mute the crowd behind me.
The band took the stage with a blistering “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and I was pumped because it is a song I’ve been learning lately in my bluegrass for dummies studies. The sound of the Acoustic Power Trio is in stark contrast to the Keel of 2004’s Beautiful Thing, the documentary filmed about Keel. In the film, Larry and Jenny emphasize their efforts of reproducing the sound of their acoustic instruments through amplification in the most accurate way possible. The Acoustic Power Trio just rocks out, peddles and all.
Will Lee is an extremely talented man. Who sang lead on a few songs through the evening, including “Flora” from 2012’s Classic. He started the evening with a well-worn, large body Gibson and to my surprise picked up to the standard I regard for Keel himself. The real magic in the trio, however, comes when he picks up the five-string. His amplified effort summons flashbacks of the late, great Mark Vann, whom the band honored during the evening with the song he wrote alongside Keel. Larry referenced Will’s pedigree: his dad, who taught him how to play, played with Ralph Stanley.
Highlights from the evening’s two sets included Keel and Lee paying tribute to Tony Rice’s version of “Cattle In the Cane,” as Keel made a plea to the crowd to donate to the Tony Rice Foundation. The newgrass staple “Watermelon Man” highlighted Larry’s vocal growl and a few songs in the evening paid tribute to the aforementioned Stanley. A couple of other songs off Classic were on display, as “Love” and “I’m No Doctor” were met appreciatively by the crowd.
Having not seen Keel up so close before, I couldn’t help but watch his fingers dance and his right-hand pick with a raging jealousy. He truly is a gift on the guitar. To my surprise, I was also quite impressed with his stage presence. His approach was friendly, personal, and jocular as he often spoke to the crowd between songs and expressed his appreciation for their support. It struck me as amusing that this band seemed so genuinely happy to be playing this evening in front of a couple of hundred folks, when just a couple of weeks before I noted that one of my favorite rock groups playing in front of a much larger audience seemed to just be going through the motions at times.
Larry Keel’s Acoustic Power Trio has six more dates scattered through February and March. The trio can get as loud and fast as friends play solid body guitars, as Keel himself mentioned at one point that he felt like Hendrix up on stage (although that mostly had to do with the volume coming out of his monitor). The instrumental display, effects, showmanship, and smiles are a must-see.
02/27/14 Annapolis, MD Rams Head on Stage
02/28/14 Snowshoe, WV Beats in the Basin
03/01/14 Richmond, VA Capital Ale House
03/13/14 Berryville , VA Barns of Rose Hill
03/14/14 Morgantown, WV 123 Pleasant Street
03/15/14 Washington, DC Gypsy Sally’s
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