Backwoods – Larry Keel and Natural Bridge
Larry Keel has a stellar resume among the bluegrass scene. Now, if your only musical contact with the guitarist/singer/songwriter rests with his collaboration with Keller Williams, as Keller & the Keels, then it might be time to catch up. Born and raised among a musical family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the flatpicking guitarist went on to win competitions at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, release 14 albums (solo and with others), has been covered by Del McCoury and Acoustic Syndicate, and shared the stage with dozens of artists from the roots, Americana, jamband, blues and bluegrass scenes including Bill Monroe, Yonder Mountain String Band, Jorma Kaukonen, Corey Harris and David Grisman.
Listening to Backwoods, the second effort by Keel & Natural Bridge, it’s clear that the foursome mesh together so very well in a thrilling union of skills. You hear that popping out in traditional ways on the instrumentals "Bluegrass in the Backwoods" and "Bohemian Reel," an original by Natural Bridge’s banjo player Jason Flournoy.
Which brings me to what makes Backwoods so engrossing. We’ve been blessed with so many gifted musicians among the roots world that it causes a lingering sense of amazement as much as it unintentionally creates a slightly jaded feeling. It’s the approach to the material that makes all the difference here, a hybrid of bluegrass with folk, country and jazz that tweaks the arrangements in subtly, shifting ways to grab one's attention. Keel dubs it New Mountain Music, and that’s good enough for me. It feels like sunshine peaking through a thick forest or a sunrise with the grass caked by morning dew. Staking their individualistic terrain comes about immediately on the opener, "Fast Horses." That runs through a cover of the Beatles’ "Mother Nature’s Son," a timeless classic tackled with by an approach that’s respectful and organically innovative, and completes the circle with a newgrass elements on "Crocodile Man" and the old timey feel of "Swarm of Bees." As good as all that is, there’s "Diamond Break," the track that sets everything up for the rest of the album. So gentle yet so urgent the song blurs genres in a manner that I literally froze to fully capture the moment and allow myself to be immersed into the New Mountain Music fold.