Larry Keel has been carving out his own niche somewhere among the bluegrassers, jam bands, songwriters, and hot pickers since the mid-’90s. His casual presentation belies an intense passion for acoustic roots music, family, and a “don’t tread on me” lifestyle, with a fishing pole and a guitar always within reach. Classic is his 14th album release between his former band Magraw Gap and various collaborations, and his third with the current incarnation of Natural Bridge: Mark Schimick on mandolin, banjoist Will Lee, and bassist Jenny Keel. The group has gelled into a tight little quartet, and the whole is rapidly growing larger than the sum of its parts. By sharing lead vocal and songwriting responsibilities and having Keel’s red-hot flatpicking guitar matched by the equally fiery breaks of Schimick and Lee, Natural Bridge shows that they can shift easily from supportive songsters to pickers who can make a listener sit up and take notice.
Lyrically, the songs spin a bucolic thread that stays true to its roots in social idealism (“Take The Time” and “Do Unto Others”) with a strong component of libertarian (“How Can It Be Wrong”). Musically, there’s nary a jolt as they shift gears from blistering newgrass instrumentals (Lee’s “B-Funk” and Keel’s “Fishin’ Reel”) and covers as diverse as Dock Boggs’s “Country Blues,” Bob Marley’s “Put It On,” and one of the best bluegrass covers of the old Irish ballad “Flora” (also known as “Lily Of The West”) that I’ve heard. By now, Keel’s fans know the kind of spirit he brings to his recordings, but those who might still be unfamiliar with him or else might be put off by his jamgrass associations may be pleasantly surprised by how tight, polished, and accessible this CD is. Eclectic and idiosyncratic, yes, but this album is also powerful and just plain good. (Keel Office, P.O. Box 30, Lexington, VA 24450, www.larrykeel.com.)HK