Larry Keel has been at this for a bit. Head over to his website, click on the “history” tab, and you’ll find a timeline that begins in 1968, when he was born in Manassas, Virginia, and ends with the 2015 holiday season. In 1986, he landed a gig at Tokyo Disneyland for a year. Throughout the past three decades, he’s won more awards at more bluegrass and guitar festivals than he can even count. “Experienced,” his latest set, is his 15th release, and on it, you’ll find friends like Keller Williams and Del McCoury popping up every now and then.
One more time. Larry Keel has been at this for a bit.
So it should come as no surprise that “Experienced” is a better-than-good trip through almost every aspect of his influences and capabilities. Even at a mere seven tracks, there isn’t any type of bland uniformity that Keel settles into; rather, he keeps things interesting by offering genre-bending novellas that demand attention and then subsequently, if not inevitably, satisfy it. The guy is simply too good to allow anyone a sense of comfort. Don’t dare click the stop button — you never know what might be coming around the playlist.
Almost fittingly, it begins with a six-plus-minute opus, “Ripchord,” which essentially throws gallons of water onto any hate-fueled fire before as much as a spark could even formulate. A rocket ship of pickin’ and playin’ blasts into the sky, and not even something as tedious as words could possibly get in the way. That’s because there are none. Coming out of the gate with all of the talent and putting each inch of it on the table for listeners to judge is the correct move when you’re this good. It’s great bluegrass for people who actually care about great bluegrass.
The same tone paints “Fill ‘Em Up Again,” which is aided by a wildly fun chorus that sounds as though it were sung by a gang of back porch players who might have eight teeth between them (and that’s a good thing). “Hot dang, boys, did that taste good / let’s fill ‘em up again” is how it goes, and from the second you hear that phrase kick the song off, devoid of all music behind it, you know you’re in for a treat. The tasteful bolt of fiddle lightning that weaves its way through the verses only makes this a storm in which you’d be so lucky to be caught.
Slowing things down serves him well, too. “Memories,” perhaps the closest thing to a radio single here, is delicate, Keel’s voice proving to be both haunting and accessible. The secret weapon here, however, is the background banjo that provides a tenderness paramount to the track’s affectation. Underneath a deceptively driving acoustic guitar, the song’s structure pulls off the trick of always moving forward while providing the perception of musically standing still. The guy’s lower register doesn’t hurt, either.
The other side of the ballad equation isn’t as kind. “Another Summer Day” veers a little too much into soft rock territory, even if the writing and performances are adequate. Try as he might, a line like “Couldn’t have a better friend / I wrote this song for you and me” is one in a group of squeamish passages that Keel offers up here. Where “Memories” feels like it’s made for a major motion picture, “Another Summer Day” adheres more to the Lifetime movie crowd.
But let the record show that when Larry Keel wants to be great … well, hot damn, Larry Keel is great. “‘Lil Miss” is acoustic funk-blues in the vein of Earl Thomas’ take on “Git Me Some.” The singer opts for a more raw and rugged approach to his vocals, and it matches the swampy groove that the guy creates with his six-string. Shoot, it even rivals the Spin Doctors as Best Song With A Hook That Uses The Phrase “Lil Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” Throw in some intricately tasteful banjo picking between verses, and what you have is something close to perfection.
Actually, perfection is something that Larry Keel is probably closer to than a lot of his contemporaries. Because, again … well, he’s been at this for a bit. That’s why “Experienced” means so much more in this equation than a mere album title — it’s also the very adjective that should force these seven songs onto your radar. He’s tried and true, a trusted veteran of the blues/bluegrass/Americana world with a voice and a level of talent that explains precisely how he’s made it this far.
And after these seven songs, it should be a treat to see how much further he’s willing to go.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***