Have you ever imagined seeing one of your favorite bands back in the day? You know, when they were playing bars and frat parties for anyone that would listen? Seeing them now, it’s hard to imagine that acts like Phish or Dave Matthews Band ever played for 50 people and a case of beer but they did – and they weren’t as polished as they are now. So when Keller Williams announced the Keller and the Keels Play Your Couch contest (in support of their album Thief), the possibility of winning was pretty damn exciting.
[Poster block hand carved by contest winner Nick Dellinger]
In a YouTube announcement last September, Keller’s daughter picked the winners name from a salad bowl. That winner turned out to be Nick Dellinger from Richmond, VA. The prize? A private 90-minute performance for Nick and 49 of his friends by Keller Williams, flat picking champion Larry Keel and his beautiful bass playing wife, Jenny Keel.
The complexities of Keller, Larry & Jenny’s schedule are neither subtle nor mutually dependent. It took about seven months for everyone to find a date that worked. Logistics, on the other hand, turned out to be pretty simple: Nick, Keller, Larry & Jenny all happen to live in Virginia. As for the “couch”, everyone lucked out because Nick happens to be a family friend of the Campbell’s, who own a farm right outside of Fredericksburg, VA (Keller’s Home). READ ON to find out how this intimate show went…
Fast forward to Easter Sunday in Partlow, VA; at 90ºF with blue skies and a light breeze, Easter was quickly shaping up to be the most beautiful day of the year. As we pulled up the dirt road onto Campbell Farm, it was clear that the planets had aligned for Nick and his 49 closest friends. Although you could only absorb an eyeful of the 100 acres – the big red barn, beautiful horses and Buttercup covered fields were enough to earn the title of “picture perfect.”
Keller and the Keels arrived around 5PM in a burly 4×4 and nondescript cargo van. They were given a warm welcome soundtracked by the Grateful Dead and based on their reactions, it’s safe to say they never expected the venue they were provided. The genuine Southern hospitality of the Campbell family is unrivaled East of the Mississippi. The guests were provided a camping area with a Porta-John and an epic spread of burgers, hot dogs, cold kegs and countless other amenities. The Campbells also constructed a small stage for the band, which somehow made the whole experience feel a bit more official.
[Cliff Campbell's Campgrounds]
As performances go, a fan could not ask for more. No bouncers, zero strangers, limitless sight lines and the band was taking requests. The first word uttered on stage came from Larry Keel, whose leathery, sling-blade tone lurched a deep “MMMMM Mustard Biscuitssss.” Once they were ready, Keller and the Keels hopped right into a stellar version of Rosa Lee McFall to the absolute elation of the crowd. As they finished, Keller made it known that requests would be taken and as the same cliche ran through everyone’s mind – only one man had the sand to shout it at the top of his lungs…”FREE BIRD!” And so it went.
Keller Williams is a walking song book of timeless American music. His unique well of musical knowledge and youthful on-the-fly creativity will always enable him to be a one man show. Luckily for Keller, he has the option to stay balanced with a Keel on either side of him…and to his right, with a Wolverine-esque beard and fire for fingers, Larry Keel stole the afternoon. His high speed bluegrass runs transformed every song into a jaw dropping smoke fest that inevitably forced everyone off of their seat and out of their shoes.
Larry didn’t always have the lyrics right away – Keller fed him plenty – but his guitar knew exactly what to sing, no matter what wild path they took. But without his wife and bass player, the lovely Jenny Keel, both Keller and Larry would have gotten themselves lost in time – literally. Not since Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads has there been a lady bassist as artful or rhythmically gifted as Jenny Keel. Her upright bass and top notch harmonies made sure that Larry and Keller’s runaway tendencies were perfectly grounded with smart grooves that kept the whole farm bouncing.
The experience could fill a book. Every moment of the 90-minute set had a story worth telling. What really made the loop-less, acoustic performance shine was the interplay between Keller, the Keels and the audience. You could see that the trio was in their element from the moment they stepped on stage. If there were any nerves associated with such an intimate performace, they were long gone by the time the “Cherry Larry” moon shine made it’s way to the stage.
As the day went on, their musical flexibility and toothy smiles truly made their friendship shine on stage. Whether they were cracking each other up with alternate lyrics or trading chords and changes before honoring requests, it was obvious that their complimentary playing styles merely fuse their natural bond.
[Keller and the Keels with contest winner Nick Dellinger]
The setlist may speak for itself but if you weren’t there, you’ll never know the whole tale. It was like having the best cover band of all time show up at your family’s house and play your annual Easter picnic. In the end, it didn’t much matter what they played simply because they showed up. But just for the record: everything sounds better as bluegrass.
Campbell’s Farm: Partlow, VA 4/24/11
· Rosa Lee McFall
· Free Bird*
· Pepper > New Drug > Pepper
· Faster Horses (The Cowboy and The Poet)#
· Don’t Cuss That Fiddle
· Get It While You Can
· Dark Hollow*
· Breathe > Ring of Fire* > Cold Roses
· All Fall Down% > Culpepper Woodchuck%
· Freaker by the Speaker*
· The Year 2003 Minus 25##
· Loser (Beck) > Loser^ (G.D.) > Loser (Beck) > Boob Job*> Last Dance (With Mary Jane) > Break Down > Last Dance
· Born to Be Wild*
· Uncle Disney
1. William Prendergast III, who was first booed then championed by the crowd after the impromptu performance was decidedly awesome.
2. Kristin Fisher: Cliff Campbell’s Fiancé.
3. Cliff Campbell: Fiancée of Kristin Fisher, son of Mr. Campbell; this request beat out Cumberland Blues.
4. Crowd request that initially went un-acknowledged.
5. Michael Kelly: bearded son of Michael Kelly.
6. Mr. Campbell: father of Cliff Campbell, Sultan of the grill and Chief Golf Cart Operator.
7. Crowd request that required some chord discussions among the trio before starting.
# Prompted the passing of the “Cherry Lerry” Red Moonshine from the crowd to Larry, Keller and Jenny on stage.
## Prompted the passing of the Green Moonshine. This flavor of ‘shine caused all band members to visibly shudder, except for Larry Keel.
% Keller on Drum Machine, heavy gong use.
^Alternate Lyrics: “Don’t you touch Green Moonshine, just a cup of cold coffee”
[Keller and the Keels]
[Keller and Jenny Keel pass the southern torch]
[Killin' It With The Keels]
[Cussin' That Fiddle]