It's easy to see why Larry Keel's name gets top billing in this foursome, and it's not for his impressive ability with the guitar. Unless he shoots fireworks out of the frets or plays with his teeth while hanging upside down from the rafters, one very good musician playing bluegrass sounds very much like any other to my tin ear. Keel's fellow band members, including the missus on bass, also play clean and nimble riffs, sing engaging harmonies, and provide solid backup. So, for any listener who isn't a major guitar nerd, Keel's real standout quality is his deep, warm, baritone voice.
Mandolin player Mark Schimick, who provides the lead vocal on "Ghost Driver," has the classic high and thin bluegrass voice, but Keel's pipes are of that variety highly prized in a new metal act or a '90s grunge band. Backwoods opens with a cover of Tom T. Hall's "Faster Horses," a perfect choice to show off Keel's manly voice. At the album's heart is "They," on which Keel gets positively Vedderesque, and it works to great effect.
Backwoods shows the best aspects of Larry Keel & Natural Bridge: solid playing, bluegrass cred and a little something different.
Larry Keel and the Natural Bridge play Sean Kelly's Saturday, Aug. 29, at 9 PM. Cover TBA. Keel also plays the River City Roots Festival Sunday, Aug. 30, at 1 PM. Free.