Keller Williams discusses ‘Speed’ covers album, return to Belly Up Aspen
IF YOU GO …
Who: Keller Williams
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Sunday, March 8, 9 p.m.
How much: $26-$42
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
The album art for Keller Williams’ latest album, “Speed,” is inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and its Ralph Steadman illustrations. It finds Williams standing up in the backseat of the book’s iconic Red Shark, with Williams’ collaborators — husband-wife flat-pickers Larry and Jenny Keel — in the front seat in the Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo roles.
Williams is a fan of the late Aspen literary lion, and “Fear and Loathing” and “The Rum Diary” in particular, he said, but the artistic choice was simply about the rough concept for his the album: playing fast and fun.
“It’s ‘Speed’ because we like to play really fast,” Williams said Monday from home in Virginia.
He’ll be back at Belly Up Aspen on Sunday, closing a three-show Colorado run that’ll hit Fort Collins and Nederland.
“Speed” marks the 25th studio album for Williams, 50, who has carved out a singular place for himself in the jam and folk scene, playing acoustic dance music and showcasing his ability to play in just about any genre and style while staging astounding live solo performances where he uses loop machines to craft a symphonic live sound.
Since his 1994 debut “Freek,” each of his albums has had a one-syllable title, each summing up its own musical concept (“Kids” is children’s songs, “Grass” is his spin on bluegrass, “Funk” is funk, etc.). His continued commitment to the album as an artform is anachronistic in 2020, when most artists are focused on singles.
“It’s something I’ve always had a romantic vision about,” he explained. “Each record is a particular compilation of songs to be listened to in that order.”
He recalled learning about the song-to-song flow of an album as a kid by listening to his parents’ eight-track tapes, then being jarred by the CD era when you could play songs shuffled on the stereo.
“I’ve wanted to keep it alive,” he added. “Each record I make is a document, for myself to hear when I’m really old. I mean, I’m old now, but older.”
While he churns out albums, Keller’s live performances remain his creative signature. His solo sets are the stuff of legend, using loops to layer his vocal and multi-instrumental performance.
This winter he’s doing long weekend runs around the U.S., flying for three-night regional tours. The flight gigs have given him a useful creative constraint, he said, traveling with only his tour manager: “We can each bring up to three 70-pound bags, so it’s usually three guitar cases and three Pelican cases. I’m trying to do more with a lot less and technology has gotten to where I’m able to do that.”
Onstage at these Colorado shows, Williams will have a bass on a stand, two acoustic guitars, one of which has a guitar synthesizer that can pick up string vibrations and which Williams can manipulate on the computer.
“I can get all kinds of synthesizer sounds out of that — a helicopter coming in for a landing or aliens or violins or vibraphones.”
Released in November, “Speed” is the third album Williams has made with the Keels and the second album of bluegrass covers he has made with them (the first was 2010’s “Thief”).
It includes string-band sprints through the tribute songs, with weird and fun selections like Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and Nikki Bluhm’s “Little Too Late” along with ’90s alternative classics like Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” to Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” and the Presidents of the United States of America’s “Peaches.”
“These songs picked me,” Williams explained. “They get stuck in my head and I have to play them and record them to get them out.”
They didn’t set out to make a covers record, he said, but these songs are what came out when he and the Keels started jamming.
“It’s my self-indulgent plan to hang out with my friends,” he explained. “We didn’t set out to do a covers record. It was just me wanting to spend time hanging out with my friends.”
That’s how all three of his albums with The Keels have come about, with Williams sending voice-memo rough cuts to the couple and the three of them recording live together.
“It’s not a lot of rehearsal time, other than just hanging out backstage,” he said.
While he doesn’t plan much for recording sessions, Williams is obsessive about his set lists for live performance. Preparing for Aspen, he studied his set lists from previous shows and is working on a performance that won’t repeat songs the local audience has heard recently.
“I’m trying not to play the same stuff that I played last time,” he said. “And I always have new stuff kicking around that I want to get out. I spend way too much time on set lists.”
Williams has a devoted Colorado following and is a regular presence at Belly Up. He fondly his 2006 experience headlining Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day festival, where he jammed onstage with fellow headliner Matisyahu.
“He was holding his child and came and sat in with me, with the kid all mellow, and he came onstage and sang these improv lyrics over a groove,” Williams recalled. “That’s a great musical memory.”
Williams’ ski country fans know him as the avid snowboarder behind the powder day anthem “Floating on the Freshies.” But he rarely gets the chance to ride when he comes through Aspen and other ski towns.
“On a typical trip to a ski resort in Colorado I bring tons of wonderful snow that I can’t partake in,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve gotten used to it.”
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