Larry Keel and Natural Bridge with Tony Rice, Neighborhood Theatre, Charlotte, NC- 12/8
A Larry Keel performance is always a treat, but rarely is he in such fine company as this particular evening at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina. To start with, Natural Bridge is simply an amazing band. His wife Jenny on the upright electric bass provides a great backbone to her husband and their young accompanists, Mark Shimick (mandolin) and Jason Flournoy (banjo). Shimick plays chordal melodies through his rhythms and while his solos are notable, his accompaniment put him in a level of playing that is rare, especially in a player so young. Jason Flournoy on the other hand has a very upbeat style to his rhythms, in the vein of a rhythm reggae player. Meanwhile, for a Telluride flatpicking champion, Larry Keel is surprisingly receptive and attentive to the other musicians on stage. While his soloing can grow to speeds that are hard to comprehend, he is a rhythm guitar player and a gentle soul on the fret board when he wants to be. He does take his fair share of Van Halen guitar solos, but refreshingly, he uses his speed as a garnish and never as a crutch.
It is a struggle to classify what kind of music Natural Bridge plays. They clearly have a bluegrass soul, but there is something deeper and occasionally darker than the genre really allows. Jenny summed it up perfectly about halfway through their first set when she dubbed the music “emo-grass.” Larry has a Fu Manchu beard that could have landed him the role of sheriff or villain in some old time western. He has a deep and booming voice smoked in the mountains of Appalachia. He writes and sings beautiful songs and brings traditional music into his repertoire. When Mark sings, his high bluegrass tenor he sails above the band and reminds us of the band’s bluegrass roots. And there is little finer than harmony vocals from Jenny Keel. Although never taking over the lead role, she was in the back keeping it all moving, both with her driving bass lines and her harmony vocals. They closed out the set with the "Wind Cries Mary" and told us to stick around as they’d be right back.
The second set saw the band reemerge with Tony Rice right in the middle, wearing his grey suit, a bright red shirt and a brighter red tie. He sported rings and a bracelet that only he could have pulled off. In another world, he could have been a mob boss. In this world, he is the boss of the acoustic guitar. The set started slow, and I began to worry about Tony. He seemed a bit frailer than the last time I had seen him and he seemed uncomfortable with the music. Granted, this was not a long tour where he was joining the band, just a quick run of a few nights. But then the third song, a version of Miles Davis’s "All Blues" started with a long Tony intro and any concerns I had were gone by the time that everyone else had joined in. Each of the four soloists on stage took their turn several times and they were all good but there is truly something other worldly about Tony Rice. He floated back and forth between jazz and bluegrass in a way that seemed impossible. At first I noticed his use of “blue notes,” or the notes out of the scale. Soon enough I realized that Tony was not using blue notes in his solos, because that would imply he was playing with scales. He utilized all twelve musical notes that western music made available to him. Most jazz players cannot play out of scale the way that Tony Rice did seamlessly, and he was floating between genres while fitting in to both.
I expected this to be the highlight of the set, if not the show, but leave it to Larry Keel and Tony Rice to keep us on our toes. Jenny, Mark and Jason walked off stage as Mr. Jack Lawrence emerged, guitar in hand, from the crowd. Jack Lawrence is Doc Watson’s secret weapon, his right hand man. He is the flair to Doc’s old school sensibilities. He is the guitarist that shows all the others why they need to keep practicing or simply give up. Larry stepped to the mic and said “I know you all are listening, but you’re gonna need to really listen on this one.” With that, they all crowded around a single mic, Martin’s in hand all around, and proceeded to show what it sounds like when three of the best acoustic guitars players in the world get together to hang out. Each player has his own sound, his own style, and they all utilized their own abilities as moving through several fiddle tunes, including "Red Haired Boy." The term “power trio” is rarely more appropriate.
Jack walked off stage as quickly as he had come and the band filed back on. They played a bit more for us, but the magic had happened. The crowd was dazed, but still in tune with every solo that got played and every line that got sung. Then the band thanked us and walked off. They played an encore but Tony never did find his way back to the stage. He knew he had been a part of something special and I am sure that he slept well that night. The rest of us left filled to the brim with bluegrass music in our ears and just a little bit of magic in our hearts.