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The Larry Keel Experience packs them in with its genre-busting bluegrass sound. 

Are you Experienced?

The last time the Larry Keel Experience brought its alternative bluegrass sound to Richmond, fans waited outside the packed Cary Street Café on a chilly January night for a chance to squeeze in and catch the show. Granted, the café is an intimate venue, but it's nonetheless a testament to Keel's growing popularity that some forget creature comforts to see him.

"I felt terrible about that," Keel says in a slow, thoughtful drawl remembering those who waited in the cold. "But it's really going great." The 31-year-old flatpicking whiz refers to the ever-increasing numbers who turn out across the country to see his mix of traditional bluegrass, blues, jazz and space grass. He's "knocked 'em out" in New Orleans clubs, East Village bars and in the mountains of western Carolina. The Experience is strong in Colorado and Keel is gaining a West Coast following. Keel's living the dream he had as a kid growing up learning traditional bluegrass and listening to Jimi Hendrix in southwest Virginia.

"I've always known I wanted to play. ... We've been pickin' all our lives," Keel says by phone from Atlanta, as the band prepares for the current tour that brings the quartet back to the Cary Street Café March 18. He describes the band's sound as one rooted in tradition, but one that embraces wide-ranging influences. During an evening, fans will hear Flatt and Scruggs and a little retooled Bob Marley. A Keel folk-jazz original — sung in Keel's Tom Waits gravel growl — may follow before the band dives into Jerry Garcia-flavored licks. Somewhere in this fast-flying musical flurry, he hopes that all will find something to like. There's one constant, however, and that is the band's mix of guitars, bass, banjo and mandolin is straight-up, mountain-rooted, acoustic music.

"I'm not worried about calling it hippie jam or traditional …," Keel says. "You sort of lock yourself in."

Keel formed the Experience at the end of 1996 but his musical resume stretches back years before that. His dad and older brother played bluegrass at picnics and fairs in the Natural Bridge area, and he first learned guitar from his brother as a youngster. After high school he worked carpentry jobs when he wasn't playing but admits it "was definitely not my cup of tea."

Keel kept listening to Doc Watson and psychedelic rock, teaching himself guitar along the way. At 18, Keel went to Florida and tried out for a bluegrass band bound for Tokyo Disneyland. He got the gig and spent six months there, playing six 30-minute sets a day for tourists. It was a great time, he recalls, and a chance to get his chops together. Returning home, he and friends formed Magraw Gap and played regionally. He also ventured to Colorado in 1993 where he "got lucky" and won first place in flatpicking at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He won again in '95. Now, with the Experience, Keel pursues his own musical vision. It's a vision more people are sharing.

"We're just trying to make good listening music," he explains. "Music with a listening edge to
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