FRIDAYSUPDATE- Bluegrass twist: Keel and Natural Bridge mix it up

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There's nothing like authentic Blue Ridge mountain music to make a relaxing summer's evening sparkle, and throwing in some reggae and indie rock makes it even better. That's what can happen Friday when Virginia native and current Rockbridge County resident Larry Keel and his acoustic band, Natural Bridge, return to Charlottesville with their sleek and savvy bluegrass sound. 

"We play a mix of bluegrass– old traditional songs, reggae songs, rock and roll songs, original music," Keel says. "We throw in some indie sounds for the kids, then make them listen to bluegrass."

Growing up in the heart of the Blue Ridge, Keel was introduced to traditional bluegrass guitar and banjo sounds by his father and brother. As he developed his  sound of his own, he drew on a variety of influences, from Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis and Bob Marley. Taking his talent global, Keel spent seven months performing in Tokyo's Disney Land, where he "played music in a Goofy cowboy hat and boots." 

"I went there and played six shows a day, a half-hour show, then a half-hour off, then another half-hour show," Keel says. "Having to play all the time really makes you fluid."

Returning to the States, Keel began a band of his own, the Larry Keel Experience, composed of his wife on bass, with rotating banjo and mandolin players. After ten years, the band found a solid sound in banjoist Jason Flournoy and mandolin player Mark Schimick and came together under the moniker Natural Bridge, inspired by their current location in Lexington. 

Touring the country in up to 150 shows a year, the band drew critical acclaim for their contemporary twist on the southern traditional bluegrass sound. 

"We play good energy music, we like to get everyone moving," Keel says of the band's performances. "I do a lot of writing, so we play original music. I don't know how you'd classify it, but it's a blend of everything. We like to mix it all up, give everyone a little something."

Keel and Natural Bridge last stopped in Charlottesville last December to play the now defunct Satellite Ballroom with Tommy Rice, a "fabulous guitar player," according to Keel. 

"We've played several different venues– Starr Hill, Miller's," Keel says. "I love coming back there, and hopefully we can get a good venue so that we can come back and frequent the town."

Despite bringing modern influences to the historically rich sound of Virginia bluegrass, Keel stays true to the traditional purity of what's often called "mountain music." Drawing influence from his home base on House Mountain in Rockbridge County and his upbringing in the Blue Ridge, Keel and Natural Bridge return to Charlottesville with a crisp, yet eclectic, twist on a southern sound. 

Larry Keel and Natural Bridge performs at Fridays After Five on 8/1. Birdlips opens.