Words by Jason Mebane
Pictures by Whitney Mebane
Back in August when the Salvage Station was finally able to re-open, the venue focused only on libations and food from its on-site restaurant partner, Root Down. A few weeks later, at the urging of their customers, they put live music back on the menu. Giving local bands a safe place to play, while offering their patrons a socially distanced outdoor space to enjoy live music. This past Saturday (Oct. 3), they took the next step in their slow return to normalcy, by hosting their first large scale ticketed event of the cornavirus era.
Virginia-based Larry Keel Experience rolled into town for a co-headlining bill with Alabama bred, Western North Carolinian transplants, Red Clay Revival. Judging by the jubilant feeling in the air and the smiles on audience member’s faces, it’s safe to assume that the return of The Salvage Station, as a venue, was something Asheville live music lovers had been eagerly awaiting.
Like everything else in our lives these days, seeing a concert is a very different experience than it was before the pandemic ravished our entire existence. Just a year ago thousands of us would’ve been packed shoulder to shoulder in this same space under the Carolina sky. Now, there were just a couple hundred of us. Instead of groups of friends congregating to stake out their turf in the concert field, we were instead each given a specified patch of real estate from which we could enjoy the music – groups of “quaranteams” given enough space to enjoy a rare night out on the town, without entering the orbital space of other concert goers’ six foot personal safety bubbles.
The Salvage Station team clearly put a lot of thought into how they could carve a path forward in these awkward times. One-way lanes of traffic were set up, leading to a handful of bars where we could order drinks trough plexiglass shields. We were allowed inside only long enough to use the restrooms, near the indoor stage, which has now been relegated to a make shift storage area. Sanitation stations were peppered about the property. It all gave the impression that The Salvage Station team was just as concerned with keeping us safe, as we were elated for our night of socially distanced live music.
A few minutes after 6 p.m., as the masked fans settled in for the night, Larry and Jenny Keel took the stage with their longtime musical partner Jared Pool. Their set was a nice mix of new music Larry has been making during his time off the road and some of his classic material. Like any good performance there were also a few choice covers sprinkled throughout. On it’s surface, The Larry Keel Experience’s music lazily gets lumped into the bluegrass genre, but the trio of musicians used their 75-minute set to show how inaccurate that label is for the type of music they create.
They wasted no time, diving head first into the instrumental “Dusty Miller,” quickly proving why Larry’s unique brand of flat-picking has earned him such a rabid following over the years. Under a thick canopy of trees just starting to show their fall colors, The Larry Keel Experience then ripped through a near flawless version of “Buffalo Creek.” With its imagery of rising waters, it was seemingly a nod to the height of the French Broad river, which due to all the recent storms was flowing mightily just beyond the concert grounds. Meanwhile many in the crowd still appeared nervous and out of practice, seemingly not quite recalling how we were supposed to react to music pouring from a stage. Mandolin player Pool then took over lead vocals for a rousing version of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down A Dream.”
It was just the thing the audience needed to shake off its initial reservations and start to let loose a little bit. It was almost as if the familiarity of the song caused a switch to flip, and one by one, we each realized how much we’d been missing the communal feeling that comes with a shared musical experience. Suddenly, unable to remain seated, most of us were catapulted to our feet, feeling the need to bop around our assigned pods as we slowly remembered how to enjoy live music.
In another obvious nod to where the Keels found themselves on this particular night, they followed with their own version of an old song Larry wrote many years ago for Asheville natives Acoustic Syndicate. As great lyrics tend to do, this reworked version of “Long Way Round” seemed like it could’ve been prophetically written about the current obstacles we are all being forced to face:
“I’ll just keep on keepin’ on, there’s another day to see…”
Obviously, the anniversary of Tom Petty’s passing was weighing heavily on the band’s mind, as they then offered up their take on the classic “Walls.” Again, we saw Pool superbly tackle the tough task of recreating the vocals of a beloved legend. Musically he nailed it as well, teaming up with Jenny Keel for a playful call-and-response game with Larry. The band leader would take the spotlight, then step back to let the other two offer a musical retort, and vice versa. It all showed that in Pool, the Keels had found their perfect third wheel for the musical side of their marital union. Not willing to take the metaphoric backseat to his bosses and band mates, Pool then led the Keels through a mind-blowing version of his own instrumental “Power Of The Pen.”
Larry stepped back into the bandleader role and ran the trio through two songs from his upcoming solo release American Dream. These last few months have forced each and every one of us to find ways, not only to fill our time, but also look for ways to self-reflect and potentially better our own existences. Some of us learned to bake bread, some of us planted and tended to gardens. Undoubtedly, some of us haven’t been able to muster up the energy to do anything more than binge watch Netflix in an attempt to just make it through the monotony. Larry, it seems, used his forced hiatus to work up a new solo album, one that reportedly finds him not only writing and singing all the songs, but also playing and layering each of the instruments himself, instead of relying on help from his musical community. While these songs may be “solo” Larry tunes, they also work very well in the context of the Experience’s trio format. Jenny has continuously been a rock-solid musical complement to her husband. She’s almost always got the biggest grin in the venue as she sways back and forth skillfully thumping her bass. Brilliant, yet not too flashy. Pool plays so masterfully you kind of wonder when he will be too big of a star on his own to keep playing second fiddle to the band’s namesake.
Seemingly not wanting to give us too much a preview of the new album, the trio then used the remainder of the set to offer us a few more premier covers and crowd pleasers. Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” saw Larry trying to outnumber the amount of notes Jimmy Page himself played on the original version, while proving that bluegrass instruments can indeed rival those of their electrified counterparts. Larry’s own “I’m No Doctor” demonstrated that, despite being more well known for his unique musicianship, he can also write a damn fine tune. Next up was a version of “Muleskinner Blues” that showcased the ability of the Larry Keel Experience to abandon their exploratory nature and play in a more traditional bluegrass style (even if Larry’s grizzly voice isn’t quite as suited for yodeling as Jimmie Rodgers’ was back in the day).
Up next was the instrumental “Road To Berryville,” which was to my mind the highlight of the night. It was as far removed from bluegrass music as the band ventured all night, more of a jazz-like number that saw Larry frantically moving up and down his fretboard like very few players can, at times getting so spacey you could almost hear another one of Larry’s influences, Jerry Garcia, in the notes pouring from his guitar. It showed again just how psychedelic three acoustic instruments are able to get as the trio delved into a detour of improvisational madness that eventually saw them land face first in a version of “Try.” Again we found Pool matching Larry note-for-note as Larry growled out another perfect set of lyrics over an effect-pedal-laden musical landscape of chaotic distortion.
They then ended the set with a pair of Larry’s more bizarre compositions, “Lizard Lady” and “Little Green Man.” Both of the fan favorites not only showcased the weirder side of Larry Keel’s musical mind, but also worked the entire crowd into a frenzy as he again proved why he is such an esteemed band leader and performer. Hey’s the type of performer who doesn’t belong locked up in the hills of Virginia, but rather belongs on the road, giving us all the fix we need to feed our addiction.
After a quick 10-minute break, the three musicians re-emerged alongside the members Red Clay Revival for a version of bandleader Doug McElvy’s “Broken Strap.” After lending their hand to the song, which Doug originally recorded with the Keels, Larry, Jenny and Pool left the Red Clay boys alone to do their thing for the next portion of the show. As the acoustic guitar driven, yet electrified, quartet made their way through their inspired set, you could tell they were the perfect band for the bill to compliment The Experience. Local legend Zebulon Bowles masterfully added his trademark fiddle as the heavy bass and drums rounded out the sounds behind the acoustic guitar leadership of McElvy. By now, the sun had set and the fog from our breath hitting the crisp autumn air was almost enough to rival the fog pouring from the machines on stage.
For the first few songs of their set they seemed to take a page out of Larry’s book by using the sounds associated with string band music, while still finding a way to morph them into something almost unrecognizable. At times their sound was reminiscent of the electric blues, at others they almost had a trance like thing going on, but they always kept that hint of bluegrass. Mid-set the band left the stage, leaving McElvy alone to give us an amazing solo rendition of a song he called “Waiting Chair.” It was a beautiful song, one that proved how talented he is as a songwriter, one that gave me the feeling we might be hearing a lot more of him in the future.
The band then worked their way through a few more numbers, as Bowles switched to keyboards, which added a whole new layer to Red Clay Revival’s musical stew. Speaking of musical stew – there’s nothing like a pair of horns to really kick a concoction to the next level, and that’s exactly what we got for the last few tunes of their set. Saxophonist Paul Juhl and trumpeter Alex Bradley, both from one of Asheville’s most beloved bands, Empire Strikes Brass, added their ingredients to take the evening’s music the final step away from bluegrass and into something completely new. The sound of Bowles’ key work mixed with the pair of horns steered the music more toward a Steely Dan soft prog rock smooth jazz kind of thing.
Red Clay Revival then ended their set and wandered off stage just long enough to catch their breath before all of the evening’s performers, sans Jenny Keel, reemerged together for an exploratory “super jam” mini-set to close out the evening. They began the set with a slow eerie version of the John Hartford classic “Vamp In The Middle” that was so spooky it had me wondering if the masks Larry and Jared were now donning were for protection from the virus, or just early Halloween costumes. They ended the mini set with a spirited, funky version of Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” that gave those of us that had toughed it out until the end a perfect exclamation point to a wondrous evening.
It was an amazing experiment. I’m sure for many it was the first taste of live music they’d been served in months, and it seemed to do the trick. For those of us that are addicted and have been seeking things out more aggressively over the last couple months, it was proof that we might be able to get back to normal at some point. Unlike small local bands on brewery patios, or larger acts at drive in shows where we are confined to our vehicles, the show on Saturday felt much more like a real concert. The Salvage Station is a quintessential spot to host music fans in this style, and were community minded enough to do it in a manner that made us all feel safe. As spread out as the Adirondack chairs and picnic tables were, I never got the impression that we were isolated from each other. I cannot even begin to find words to describe the feeling we all get from experiencing music communally after being forced into our homes for months.
With colder weather on its way, I don’t know how long events like these can last, but personally I’m hoping the Salvage tries to do more stuff like this in the near future. They have the perfect space for it, and by the looks of the precautions they’ve implemented, they clearly have the safety of their workers and patrons in mind. Here’s to hoping it was successful enough for them to keep giving us reasons to venture out into the real world for things that give us so much reward with so little risk, at least until we get COVID-19 under control and get to a place where we can again be asses-to-elbows with our friends dancing, drinking, hugging and carrying on the way we used to.
Jason Mebane (@ratdogfreak) is an amateur writer & professional concert goer. Just trying to revolt against the status quo (and see as much live music as possible).