Larry Keel & Natural Bridge 2.11.11
Words By Burk Fuqua
Photos By Rex Thomson
There is no better way to warm up on a cold February Friday night than to get out and catch some live music in a cozy downtown club. Lexington Kentucky's hippie haven, Cosmic Charlie's, was the place and Larry Keel and Natural Bridge were the headliners. Lexington's music scene was in full effect for the shortest month of the year. With great nationwide acts rolling through town back to back, it was almost like Central Kentucky was treated with a winter music festival to wet our appetite for the coming season.
Taking the stage first was a local trio, cleverly named The Barry Mando Project. The group is comprised of an electric baritone mandolin, along with various bass and percussion instruments. Most of the tunes were original works by mandolin player Danny Williams, however they also play alternative arrangements of songs from a wide range of styles. They have a light and loose Jazz feel to many of the songs, but certainly have the ability to bring it all together for more funky, and solid driving rock numbers. I, as well as most of those in attendance, enjoyed their musical styling's, but clearly we were ready to see fire and fury that was about to be bestowed up on us.
Larry Keel and his bass playing wife Jenny, have teamed up with Will Lee on banjo, and Mark Schimick on mandolin, together they are Natural Bridge. It was quite clear from the onset that Larry had come out to "Keel our face" with his stunningly technical flat-picking. It would be unfair to categorize this group as Bluegrass, after all how many Bluegrass bands do you know that fill the middle of their set with a very lengthy and dynamic "Jungle" by Grandmaster Flash. No, despite the types of instruments in hand, there is no defining the sound that Natural Bridge brings to the stage.
Since leaving the world of flat-picking competitions Larry has joined up with he likes of Keller Williams, String Cheese, and YMSB just to name a few. With his low rumbling voice and almost super-human chops, Larry has found a home on stages big and small, blending in with open strings as well as more plugged in psychedelic sound. Listening to them play, there is no doubt that there are roots that grow deep in the Appalachian mountains. With their own twist on traditionals, Natural Bridge harmonizes about corn liquor, living in the hills, and growing your own. Larry even takes time out for a public service announcement, when he poses a question in song, "How can it be wrong if it grows wild?"
Though Larry could easily stand alone and wow any crowd, as he proved in his solo encore, there is no doubt that his tremendous skills as a picker are greatly complimented by the impeccable timing of Jenny on her upright bass. While some bass players tend to lazily thump out the same tired line for seemingly ever song played, Jenny has a wonderful ability to keep up with Larry's speed and precision in a way only a wife could. With quick and tight tempo changes, and cleverly thought out bass lines, the instrument seems to have a voice of its own. Will Lee has his five finger roll down to such a science, that he can stand beside a world champion picker, and trade licks like a heavyweight in the ring. In many bands the banjo does not always receive the most accolades, not to mention the player, but there is no doubt that Lee holds his own in this group.
Mark Schimick on mandolin does a great job balancing out the overall sound with haunting trebles and rhythmic chops. Until the aforementioned 'Jungle", I was unaware of the rightful place of a F5 mandolin in a hip hop song. The blend of such talented musicians, and varied genres of music, made this night one that will be remembered by anyone who was lucky enough to be in attendance. The next time Larry Keel comes near your town with Natural Bridge, or any of his many projects, I highly suggest strapping on your boots and stepping out to see what sort of magic can be made with a few slabs of wood and a hand full of strings.