Buds Larry Keel and Adam Aijala’s form a musical partnership of respect

by Ryan Snyder

Many a friendship has been forged over the strings on a fishing rod or those on a guitar. In the case of Larry Keel and Yonder Mountain String Band’s Adam Aijala, the case can be made for both. Keel is a Rockbridge County, Va. flatpicking virtuoso whose second life as a fisherman has earned him status as an expert of equal standing, and though this week will be the first time in their friendship the two have ever cast reel together, it certainly wont be their first time sharing a stage.

In fact, their performance days go back to 2003, as Keel supported Yonder Mountain in their post-formative days as a solo act with Aijala often joining him at the end of his sets for the fast fiddle tunes. Their December 2009 mini-tour of the Pacific Northwest reignited a musical partnership at resulted in another trek that started last week, this time through the Southeast, which includes a stop Friday at Greensboro’s Triad Stage. You’ll have to excuse Keel and Aijala if these shows seem a bit on the informal side; there will be plenty for the flat-picking and old-time aficionados to chew on, but both players insist this tour is all about having a good time playing songs that might not fit into the margins of Yonder Mountain or Keel’s own bluegrass outfit Natural Bridge.

“You’ll be hearing some crazy stuff for sure. We do some REM, the Clash and Uncle Tupelo, but also both of our own originals,” Keel said in his burly Appalachian drawl. “It’s not just a couple of guitars up there putting people asleep. We want it to be real entertainment.”

Anyone anticipating the Butthole Surfers, Ryan Adams, Cracker and Marcy Playground covers from Keel’s forthcoming collaboration with his wife Jenny and Keller Williams entitled Thief will have to be patient, however. They won’t be debuted until the Keels pair up with Williams at this year’s SmileFest in Pinnacle’s Jomeoke Campground the weekend of May 21-23. Keel will also perform with his original band, the reformed lineup of progressive bluegrass unit MaGraw Gap.

One can get a solid grasp of their performance style from a live stream of a December show in Portland, Ore. found on americanaroots. com, where they cover Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning,” Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck In the Middle with You” and “Corn Liquor” by Greensboro’s own master picker-in-residence David Via. Hearing them play and talk onstage, it’s clear that there’s a profound mutual respect for each other’s playing and how their styles meld so beautifully.

“A big thing that I notice with Larry’s playing is the way that he attacks; he definitely manhandles the guitar. I love his style,” Aijala said. I feel like I’m more on the lighter side, though I don’t want to say more finessed, because Larry can definitely play really pretty stuff as well.”

Finesse is the approach that Aijala, who comes from punk and metal origins, embraced long ago and has been integral in Yonder Mountain’s huge success. Though he admits that his own phrasings have evolved as he transitioned from the harder styles to accommodate the nuances demanded by bluegrass and old time.

“I personally lose all my tone when I solo really aggressively on acoustic guitar. It’s just never sounded right to me,” Aijala said. “I think of it as a difference between whipping out a huge Rebel fishing lure with a big old burly rod, as opposed to throwing a tiny No. 22 dry fly with a fly rod. That’s playing punk guitar versus flat-picking to me.”

For Aijala, this tour isn’t just a chance to get out and test his lures, but it’s also a grounding experience when he removes himself from the support network that surrounds Yonder Mountain String Band, a mindset shared by his band mate Jeff Austin who’s currently touring with Umphrey’s McGee’s Brenden Bayliss. More importantly, it also gives him the opportunity to reconnect with the audience, something that the larger shows don’t afford.

“We’ve gotten a little bit spoiled with Yonder Mountain. That’s just a fact. We don’t have to drive anymore, the gear’s loaded in and out. Doing these smaller things is really cool and really grounding,” Aijala added. “At the same time I love doing it. It’s just cool to hang around different folks and you’re more in the thick of it because you get to rap with the people who appreciate what you’re doing.”

Larry Keel and Adam Aijala will perform at Triad Stage as a part of the emfFRINGE Series this Friday.

Larry Keel right) and YMSB’s Adam Aijala (left) square off at Triad Stage Friday night. (Bright Life Photography)