The Larry Keel Experience performs Saturday at Grass in the Glades in Gibbon Glade, Pa. (Steven Hevener)
Larry Keel uses private events to help keep his band busy
The Larry Keel Experience is back on the road playing live shows. Pre-pandemic, it wouldn’t be big news, but with the prolonged shutdown of music venues, the bluegrass trio is tweaking the business model by using social media to help book private events.
Those smaller gigs accommodate 20 to 50 people in backyards, farm fields and barn settings. One tentative event, pending confirmation, is part of a fishing and camping trip, said PraterDay’s Curtis Geren, agent for the bluegrass group.
“It would be more like a campfire hangout,” Geren said. “Unique and creative experiences like that are what seem to be popping up. It goes to show you what you can do trying to develop personal connections with the people who love their music.”
It’s all part of the live music industry’s effort to generate revenue during the COVID-19 crisis, given the need to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safety protocols to protect performers and patrons, Geren said.
“It’s pretty much chaos at this moment, and survival is built on what you can do creatively to try to help,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s less about helping myself and more about helping my artists survive. I want them to still be a band when this is all over — all of them.”
The Larry Keel Experience is made up of Keel, a singer/songwriter and guitarist; his wife, Jenny, on stand-up bass; and mandolin player Jared Pool. The Keels live in a rural area of Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Keel has toured on his own for 30 years with various lineups, and the current trio is a staple at bluegrass festivals. Keel has sat in with greats Sam Bush and Del McCoury and “jamgrass” bands Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon.
The Larry Keel Experience played its last show before the pandemic Feb. 22 at WinterGrass in Seattle, where the first cases of coronavirus occurred before it spread nationwide. During the shutdown, the Keels have kept busy tending to their large garden, growing tomatoes, eggplant, squash, zucchini, green beans and watermelon.
In addition, Larry Keel has recorded a new record at home, “American Dream,” in which he plays all the instruments. He is in the mastering and editing stage, but the group is playing some of those new songs in concert, he said.
The Keels are willing to safely play weekend gigs a few hours from home. Current dates cover private events in Virginia and Tennessee, a drive-in theater in North Carolina and two shows at the Charleston (S.C.) Pour House, in a state where some clubs have operated for a few months with restricted capacity.
After a five-month hiatus, the trio’s first show was July 25 at Grass in the Glades, a two-day fest in Gibbon Glade, Pa. As part of the operation, event officials distributed color-coded wristbands to all attendees and performers dictating the level of interaction they were comfortable with at the festival, Jenny Keel wrote in an email exchange.
“The red band meant ‘Do not come closer than 6 feet; yellow meant ‘You can approach me with a mask on and we can talk and hang, but no touching or getting closer; and green, which meant ‘I’m OK with hugs and high fives,’” she wrote. “We opted for yellow and hung out with a few people, mostly members of the other bands and staff. We felt respected and protected and the patrons behaved well. We hope they all continue to be like this as we cautiously re-enter the gig world!”
As it stands now, seven of the group’s 12 dates through mid-November are private events. For Larry Keel, it adds to the wide variety of venues at which he has performed over the years, extending from churches and beer halls to Red Rocks and Carnegie Hall.
More private events are on the horizon. As of late July, PraterDay had received 50 inquiries tied to social media solicitations. It’s a dose of good news, considering the last wave of major bluegrass festivals has pulled the plug on events from August through October.
“If even half of those (inquiries) turn into performances, that would be amazing,” Geren said.
It all started after PraterDay officials sent an email to the 23 artists on their roster, asking if they felt comfortable performing during the rest of 2020. Half of them declined because of the virus and the social climate in general. Others, such as the Larry Keel Experience, the Jon Stickley Trio, Circus No. 9 and the Hackensaw Boys were interested in taking the grassroots approach to book shows, Geren said.
Keel jumped on the concept, sending messages through Facebook and Instagram, asking his followers if they would like to host a private party featuring a performance by his band. For those interested, Keel put them in touch with PraterDay for more details.
“Larry’s been around for a long time and has a broad network of people that love what he does, especially in his home state,” Geren said.
The basic idea is to have a group of friends all pitch in $100 to $150 to pay the bands. For private events, the average fee is $2,500, not bad for a three-piece group these days, Geren said. Typically, Larry Keel would command a higher fee for private events, but given the circumstances, PraterDay has been flexible in its pricing structure. The agency’s agreements ensure all attendees adhere to spacing guidelines and wear face coverings.
“A lot of people have stepped up and really want to hear music and be around it again,” Keel said. “They seem to be thirsting for it very badly. We’re figuring out how to get out and get it to them as easy as we can and as best we can, and doing our best to be safe. Some venues we’re doing are fortunate enough to have outdoor seating.”
The drive-in format is something new for Keel, along with virtually every other touring artist playing those venues.
Officials at Hound’s Drive-In in Kings Mountain, N.C., reached out to PraterDay to book a show for Aug. 6. Grass is Dead, a bluegrass band playing Grateful Dead covers, is the opener. Bridging the Music, a Colorado promoter, is producing the event.
“It’s exciting, a whole new process for me,” Keel said.
As the pandemic rages on, Keel remains uncertain what the future holds for the concert industry.
“Wish I could wave a wand and know what to do,” he said. “We had a really great year on the calendar for 2020, one of our biggest ever and now a lot of that has been rescheduled to 2021. It’s going to be an entirely new thing, but it might be good for everybody to be mindful and safe and still have a great time enjoying music together.”