Keller Williams solos in Aspen
ASPEN When Keller Williams put his band together, two years ago this month, he didnt choose musicians based on their names. It was only a happy accident that his sidemen bassist Keith Moseley, guitarist Gibb Droll and drummer Jeff Sipe came with initials that, when added to his own, formed a recognizable acronym. For much of 2007 and part of this year, the quartet toured as the WMDs.Its a good thing Williams didnt start with the name, then add the players. WMDs, it turns out, was taken by a New York City-based rock band which sent Williams a cease-and-desist letter, asking him to come up with a new name. (Williams settled on the far more prosaic, and awkward, Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll & Sipe.) More significantly, being a sideman in a band led by Keller Williams is not a job suited to any randomly picked musician, even a very accomplished one. Williams, a Virginia native and current resident of the Old Dominion state who spent a chunk of the mid-90s based in Colorado, is spontaneous nearly to an extreme. Its not just his licks and set lists that are improvised, but the way he jumps from song to schtick, or interweaves bits of one tune say, Porno for Pyros Pets, or any of the Grateful Dead songs much-beloved by Williams inside of another. Beyond that, the 38-year-old Williams has spent most of his career as a solo act, using looping technology and an array of instruments (guitar, bass, keyboards, mouth trumpet) to become a one-man jam-band essentially, interacting with himself, rather than other musicians. There also is a goofiness reflected in the lyrics and the onstage personality that a sideman would have to be comfortable with. So choosing players to surround him in a band was done with deliberation and care.This was a long, thought-out process: If I could have a band, who would I want? I thought about that for years, said Williams from his home in Fredericksburg, not far from where he was raised. Luckily, these guys are really the right guys for the job.Williams adds that timing played a huge factor in assembling the quartet. The bands that Moseley and Sipe had spent years in String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, respectively, both of them Colorado-based and bluegrass-influenced were on hiatus, or about to be. Droll was largely unattached to other projects. But apart from being available, they all knew Williams and were familiar with his style. Moseleys band, String Cheese, had actually formed an alliance with Williams, touring as the Keller Williams Incident and releasing the 1999 album, Breathe. Droll was, like Williams, a Virginia product; before he started touring nationally, Williams opened some Virginia shows for the Gibb Droll Band, and the two became friends. And Williams admired Sipe from a bit of a distance, at first; he would often see the Atlanta-based Aquarium Rescue Unit, with Sipe on drums. The two later became acquainted on the jam-band circuit, which Sipe toured as a member of Leftover Salmon and Jazz Is Dead.They were all very obvious choices, said Williams. Keith in String Cheese, they were all about improvising. Jeff is a monster jazz guy, an amazing listener. And Gibb is open for any kind of audible at any time. Im a total fan of each of these guys individually.The former WMDs shine as a unit on Live, which was recorded at several concerts during last winters tour. Over two CDs, they make their way through Williams originals almost invariably with jumpy rhythms, unexpected jumps from bluegrass-derived sounds to jazz-metal, and titles like Skitso and You Are What You Eat the band turns on a dime and hits peak after peak. Even more impressive is the DVD, which opens with a typically silly, but clever and accomplished tour through the musical keys, A through G. (F, riffs Williams, is his favorite; G, he claims, is the peoples key.) On video it is made even clearer how well Williams has adapted to the role of band leader, and band member. (Later in the DVD, several horn players join the group, and the tightness remains as the soundscape expands.) The DVD also demonstrates how Williams has kept his goofiness intact, even surrounded by bandmates: Among the tunes is Bob Rules, a tribute to Bob Barker of The Price Is Right, and a take on Carole Kings (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.Williams reveals that there are some magic tricks that can be seen onstage but are made invisible on the DVD. The musicians all have hidden earphones, and when Williams speaks into a certain microphone, he can communicate with his mates, out of earshot of the audience.But it gets to a point where you dont need to do that anymore, said Williams.Williams has wanted to have a band since he started playing music. But there was a bigger goal that kind of swallowed that desire.I think the big dream was to support myself playing music, in whatever capacity that could happen, he said. Whether it was as a rhythm guitar player for someone, or playing the ski towns. Whatever it took.As it happens, Williams started out on the solo-act path, playing tiny bar gigs for no cover. Figuring the easiest way to cover his costs was to keep it small, Williams, instead of adding warm bodies, expanded his own musical palette. Employing digital technology, Williams learned how to create loops say, recording, onstage, a simple bass line, then having it repeat while he played guitar licks over it. Over time, he added instruments, techniques and expertise and became as much of an artistic attraction as a side-show freak. Touring as a solo performer, while being a top draw at festivals and in clubs, was lucrative enough that he set aside the idea of forming a band.Long ago, when I really wanted to do it, I couldnt afford it, Williams said of being a bandleader. Then the solo thing took off, and when I could afford it, I didnt really need a band.After nearly a decade of the one-man-band thing, he craved something different. Two winters ago, Williams summoned Moseley, Sipe and Droll for a four-day rehearsal session at his home studio, where they worked up a 20-song repertoire. That summer, Williams and company debuted as the WMDs.Its definitely different. And thats the whole idea, said Williams. First and foremost, it makes it more interesting for me, so I dont have to fake it onstage. Im constantly trying to put myself in the place of an audience member, who may have seen me who knows how many times, solo.For that first stretch playing in the WMDs, Williams intentionally left the touring light one festival a week, for a month. The idea was to make sure it worked, and also to keep it fresh. But by the fall of 2007, all the members were ready to devote more time to it. The band has become Williams primary vehicle; when he appears Saturday, Dec. 6, at Belly Up, it will be a solo gig.Because my stuff is so weird, they were almost welcoming playing every night, to get used to it, said Williams.Williams has other ways to keep things interesting, aside from switching between band and solo appearances. In 2007 he released Dream, an album featuring collaborations with a host of artists including Bob Weir, Bla Fleck and Michael Franti, as well as Sipe and the full String Cheese Incident. He is almost done recording a new solo album; among the songs is Ellaforce, a bluegrass tune with sci-fi lyrics about an elephant/horse cross-breed. The father of two, Williams is most of the way through writing material for a childrens record. Beyond that, he would like to record a follow-up to Grass, a 2006 album recorded with his occasional partners in bluegrass, Larry and Jenny Keel. Earlier this year, he released the Internet-only Rex, an album of Grateful Dead covers, recorded live at Denvers Fillmore Auditorium. All proceeds from Rex go to the Rex Foundation, a nonprofit started by the Dead.After spending the last two years focusing on the band, Williams has a winter packed with solo gigs ahead of him. He aims to treat audiences to an improved product. His main focus is to become a better soloist on guitar: I dont have the schooling that could really benefit me, he said. Scales? I make up my own.On the electronics side, his show has reached a comfortable plateau. What I have serves my purposes very well, he said. But he could see taking it to another level. The next step up is having a laptop onstage, which has become very common. So theres still room for me to grow. I watch Michael Travis the drummer from String Cheese Incident, who has been exploring techno music in several projects in EOTO, and thats fascinating to me. Id like to get there.But I still want to keep an aspect of the show grounded in a microphone and a firstname.lastname@example.org
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