Larry Keel & The Rumpke Mountain Boys
Play by Play Café Cincinnati, OH 6.26.2010
Words and pictures by Rex Thomson
Any chance to see Larry Keel flat out blow people away with his flat picking fret board style and his coarse as a bear vocals is a chance you should take. When I found out he was going to be playing the Play by play Café in Cincinnati toward the end of June, I circled my calendar with a fat red Sharpie. Okay, it’s my housemate’s calendar, and she would REALLY like me to stop circling things with a big ass red Sharpie…but…what ya gonna do? I was excited to see Larry Keel okay? The run to Cincy is a short one for me, ninety minutes-ish depending on my feeling of daring. A significant accident, no fatalities thankfully, but a 55 minute sit on the expressway, with no progress at all gave me some time to check my gear, and as usual, it turns out everything happens for a reason. After attempting to take a shoot of the snarl of cars, I found, to my distress, that my memory card had gone bad! Having driven through Cincy about twelve gazillion times in my life from age 7 on up, I have always loved the painted slogan on the watertower in Florence, Kentucky, just shy of Ohio, and the Queen city. It reads “Florence Y’Ahl”! Southern charm at it’s finest, and, for comedies sake, stands right in front of the Florence Mall! See what they did there? So for the first time in two years I went into a mall. Instantly realizing why I stopped going into such places, I located the radio shack, found a card and removed myself from the air controlled paean to the downfall of society that these places personify! Back on the road, I managed to get lost almost instantly crossing the bridge. From this point forward, my reviews will only list the funny “I got lost” stories, since each review would all start to read the same. Seriously, don’t let me navigate. Just don’t!
As is usual for me, I was an hour late, and had missed nothing. Larry was on stage, sound checking. After a quick exchange of pleasantries he informed me that he and his wife, Jenny, were fighting some bug or another. The bill was switched and they were going on first. With only one show left after this one they were going to be able to get some rest. However, the show must go on, and we all thank him for that! Local favorites the Rumpke Mountain Boys were more than capable of holding down a main slot, and could easily play for six or seven straight hours! Hell, I’ve seen them do it, and it was spectacular. So, all trepidations and stress factors removed from my evening’s equation, I was now read to relax and let the love of bluegrass and American roots wash over me. In the five years or so since I first saw Mr. Keel play that stringed box, I have grown exponentially in my appreciation of the tools he keeps in his musical garage. I wish I could simply go to his house and borrow his talent wrench for a weekend. I would go and build an incredible tune outta the sonic scraps and melodic mismatched pieces of auditory wonder lying strewn around his workshop floor!
Keel is considered, and rightly so in my eyes, one of the finest flatpicking guitarists alive. The Style, begun sometime in the early twentieth century, has the guitar pick held firmly between two or three fingers, and uses a wider, flatter tipped pick. It was my plan to talk with Mr. Keel about such things after the show, but I am not so cruel as to start pestering a sick man about the details of his craft! Hopefully next time I’ll catch him at full strength, and he will be able to educate me on his personal style and its evolution. Which brings up another point: After the show, he asked me how it sounded, the mix and the playing. Reassuring him that the sound was indeed balanced and the picking was clear and fiery he smiled. I then realized that all the fiery playing I had just witnessed was from a couple of musicians fighting illness, and at best 70 percent of their usual health! Man alive, if this is how good he’s sounding now, hobbled by sickness, I’m almost scared to see the man healthy! We might have been spared mass brain destruction in the club that night. The staff is still scraping up melted faces as it is! And speaking of which, I’d like to take this opportunity to mention my newest venture, Rex’s Melted face removal and restoration. I will have crews working clubs from coast to coast, going in and cleaning and reattaching faces melted clean off by the wizardry of Mr. Keel and some of the other magnificent touring acts out there. Phish tour alone should let me retire! But I digress…
While Mr. Keel waited for the Rumpke Mountain Boys to load their gear onto the stage, I spoke with Ronnie, a bluegrass aficionado and long time resident of the area. He told me tales of the bar’s history, and it’s previous incarnation, circa the early seventies, as a more…risqué establishment. Apparently, there was a three foot wide several feet deep and long fish tank behind the bar back the, which featured nude swimmers. Sounds like not much has changed in society after all. Nothing like a little perspective to brighten your day.
The crowd filed in and pushed up front, ready for something special, and boy howdy, were they in luck. The trio of Larry and Jenny Keel, and mandolinist Mark Schimick took the stage, and after a few last minute tunings, launched into the stratosphere of Bluegrass, calling out Bill Monroe and the Watson boys, and giving the legends their due. The frantic pace he was keeping had its toll on more than just his health. The tunings of instruments is a fine one, and when playing Bluegrass, a skill you get to practice regularly, as the crazed strumming can play havoc on strings and their tightness. Taking a moment to correct his sound his wife Jenny quipped “It was in tune when ya bought it!” The beatings bluegrass instruments take is astounding. But it’s not all arms flailing as they strum away. There were moments of awesome focus and considerable concentration, as Keel would stand stock still, eyes squozen shut, totally lost to the outside world. The world could have ended right there and then I a ball of fire, and while there was still muscle tissue left on his fingers, Larry Keel would have been picking out those runs, tearing up and down the neck of his guitar like some sort of machine, built to tear up and down the neck of a guitar! But, like John Henry before him, he would burn out the motor of any mechanical device paired against him! His wife Jenny imparts a deepness, a richness of undertone to all these pickings. A weight, a sense of surety that keeps the high flying guitar notes from reaching to high, establishing a bottom end to Larry and Mark’s soaring highs!
Speaking of the mandolin player, Mark, and accompanists in general, it seems that the Keels are not just some of the nicest people in the biz, they are musically very easy to work with. From Keller Williams to Yonder Mountain to whoever is lucky enough to have him be in the area! I have seen Schimick strum his mandolin next t Larry, but this was a special session it seemed. The blend between the two was special, and echoed to an extent later in the Rumpke Mountain set. Maybe it was something in the air, or in my ear, but the collaborations between the two were epic. Twice, Jenny left the stage so the boys could “Pick on one” for us and twice it was magic. A fun Peter Tosh cover thrown in for good measure, and then Larry attempted a local remedy for his illness. Strengthened by the snake oil, Larry invited the Rumpke Boys up to join him for some picking and grinning. A once round the circle jam became a twice round the circle jam and Larry grew as animate as I saw him that night. Buoyed by the energy of his now full stage of pickers and grinners, he seemed to fill into his full form and wowed all who were there with his skills. The smiles on the faces of those onstage matched the smiles of those in the crowd, and the hoedown that was the first set ended on an uproarious note!
A few minutes of talking with he and his wife revealed the sad extent of their illness, and I withdrew to let them rest for the remaining gig, and their subsequent rest period. Besides, it was time for The Rumpke Mountain Boys to take the stage and show why they have built themselves into a local touring powerhouse act. So, the thing that jumps out at you from the start about Rumpke is the emotion they play with. The mandolinist for Rumpke, Ben Gourley, would close his eyes for long stretches of time, singing and playing from deep within himself. It was stirring to see. The guitarist, Adam Copeland, seemed to bend notes on his guitar using his entire body, not just his fingers. He played and sang from his very core, and it was a stirring sight to see. Not that it was all deep passion and heart wrenching emotion. In fact, one of their songs was the funniest song about Marijuana use I have heard in quite some time. An easy subject to win a crowd over with but rather than take the easy road, there was some deft wordplay and musician shop on display. Rounding out the quartet were Jason Wolf on banjo and Travis Gates on the six string bass. Their approach to Bluegrass may be modern, but their appeal is timeless, and their reputation is well deserved. As mentioned, they have a history of playing all night, and I was forced to call it quits after a couple of hours, with the drive home yet to come.
But, on that drive I found myself all warm and fuzzy, brightened the way I am when I have seen Musicians like the Keels and the Rumpke Mountain boys. I do what I do, and see all the shows I see for a reason. It’s the one time of my day when I feel complete, like I am where I am supposed to be. And thus do I write these reviews for you all to see, and share in what brings me joy. The chance to speak to you of these shows, and to be an advocate for the bands I love means the world to me, and it is an opportunity I do not take lightly. And so I say with all the passion I can muster go see Larry Keel pick ya a number, go hear the Rumpke fellers funk up some of the all time greats. You have my word you’ll be glad you did!