Keller Williams takes comfort in the ‘solo thing’
August 30, 2006
Keller Williams has not had a whole lot of practice in human logistics – moving band members from place to place, coordinating recording schedules for musicians. The 36-year-old Williams typically tours as a solo act, albeit one who, through the magic of digital looping and his dexterity on a variety of instruments, creates a convincing facsimile of a full band.Recently, Williams has received some education in what it is to act as the leader of a group with many arms, multiple personalities and numerous ways of thinking. For two-and-a-half years, Williams has been working on his dream album, one that pairs the 36-year-old with several handfuls of his musical idols: the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, banjoist Béla Fleck, singer Michael Franti, guitarist John Scofield and others. The album, originally conceived of with the title “Youth,” has been renamed “Dream” and a scheduled release date in early February.”The tricky thing that took the most time was getting everyone to find the time to take part,” said Williams, a former Colorado resident, speaking by phone from Fredricksburg, Va., where he was born and currently lives. “All these people are pretty busy with their own projects. The patience, and a slight touch of persistence, went a long way.”While most of Williams’ own recording was done in Fredricksburg, and some of the collaborations were done long distance, piecing “Dream” together required some legwork. Williams went to California to record with Weir, to New York City for sessions with 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, and to Massachusetts for work with singer-guitarist Martin Sexton. Several of the contributing musicians required the occasional reminder to pen a session into their schedules. But getting people onboard was not much of an effort. Williams says that all of the participating musicians agreed immediately; the four who declined his invitation – Williams won’t mention names for the record – got a thank-you and weren’t pursued further.On the artistic side, Williams met little resistance to his ideas. All of the songs are Williams originals, most of them worked out onstage over the last few years. Transforming the material from solo pieces to full-band vehicles was a smooth process as the musicians gave themselves over to Williams’ vision.”I have a pretty firm idea of how I want it to go down in the studio. But then you bring in a guy like Charlie Hunter, who wants to play it their way. And a guy like Charlie, who I have so much respect for, he’s got his own vision for it,” said Williams, whose respect for Hunter runs deep enough that he composed the song “Hunting Charlie” for his 2002 album, “Laugh.” “Most of the songs, they stick to my vision. ‘Charlie’ is the exception, but I think it benefits from his vision.”Hunter, in fact, appears on two tracks: “Kiwi & Apricot,” from the live, 2001 CD “Loop,” and “Slow-mo Balloon,” which also features singer Fleming McWilliams, the only female performer on “Dream.”
Keller, a devout Deadhead as a teenager, began playing as a standard solo act in the mid-’90s: “It was strictly one guitar and one microphone, playing my own songs and some covers, trying to keep people entertained with songs and singing.” He enjoyed the relatively hassle-free existence of a solo performer, but wanted a bigger sound, both for his own and the audience’s enjoyment. So he began toying with looping – playing an instrumental phrase, recording it live onstage, then playing over it on another instrument.The early results were disappointing, mostly because of Williams’ lack of technical know-how. The turning point came in 1997, when he opened a two-night stand for Victor Wooten. Wooten, best-known as the bassist for Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, played those shows in a bass-and-drums duo, looping his bass parts masterfully. Williams pays tribute to Wooten by including him on “Dream”; also on the album is String Cheese Incident, who gave Williams’ career a boost by using him often as an opening act.Making “Dream” might be pulling Williams ever so slightly toward forming an actual band of his own. The art of collaborating is hardly foreign to him; most of his albums have featured other musicians. The 1999 album “Breathe” was made with String Cheese; last year saw the release of the all-acoustic CD “Grass,” credited to Keller & the Keels, a trio of Williams and Larry and Jenny Keel. Williams toured much of this summer with the Keels, and at October’s Vegoose festival, he will perform a Keller Williams Incident with his friends from String Cheese.Williams says he has been thinking about putting together a touring band, something that would complement the kind of music he performs now. “I think it will be used more as a color, where it’s still the solo thing, but adding the band as a texture,” he said.But making a full-time gig of getting bandmates on the bus, handling the payroll and sharing artistic control isn’t likely to happen.”I’ve been doing the solo thing for so long, that’s where the comfort lies,” said Williams. “I miss the collaboration. But this is where the comfort is.”
Solo acts have been something of a rarity at the Labor Day Festival, but Williams has company this year in taking the stage by his lonesome.Raul Midón, who appears as the 2 p.m. act Saturday, Sept. 2, takes a more traditional approach to playing solo. A singer-guitarist in the mold of Richie Havens and José Feliciano, he has mastered the skill of getting a full complement of sounds and rhythms out of a single instrument. On his debut recording, “State of Mind,” Midón gets small amounts of assistance from a host of collaborators: flutist Dave Valentin, jazz harmonica player Gregoire Maret, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and singer Jason Mraz, who duets with Midón on “Keep on Hoping.” Most noteworthy among the contributors is Stevie Wonder, a hero of Midón’s. (Like Wonder, Midón is blind.) Wonder plays harmonica on “Expressions of Love,” but his impact is felt beyond one song. The gentle, optimistic outlook of the album, and Midón’s matching singing style, seems to have descended from Wonder.At the other end of the size spectrum is The Polyphonic Spree. With 23 members, it qualifies as the biggest group to assemble on a Jazz Aspen stage. Lyle Lovett employed a full choir in his Labor Day appearance two years ago, but only on a few songs. The Polyphonic Spree make a full-time habit of their bigness. The band’s origins are traced to Tripping Daisy, a reasonably successful indie rock act of the ’90s. When guitarist Wes Berggen died of an overdose, in 1999, singer Tim DeLaughter quit the band business and opened a record shop in Dallas. When DeLaughter, who had represented the more experimental pop side of Tripping Daisy, started hearing music flow through him again, it was big sounds, symphonic and choirlike.
“Instead of one person singing, I wanted 10 people singing,” he said in a phone interview. “I wanted to combine the rock world and the symphonic world.”When DeLaughter was slow to put his vision onstage, a friend kicked him into gear, booking him an opening slot at a Dallas club. Frantically, DeLaughter grabbed friends and friends of friends, piecing together a 14-piece band in two weeks’ time. The show went over well enough that listeners volunteered to become band members.”People came up and said, hey, do you need this instrument? Do you need another voice in the chorus?” said DeLaughter, a charismatic 40-year-old with a colorful twang. “Fans just wanted to be in the band.”Within two more weeks, DeLaughter and his congregation – including horns, a harp and a choir – had recorded their debut, “The Beginning Stages of … ,” which became a hit. The band’s music was featured in the films “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Thumbsucker,” and the Polyphonic Spree was handpicked by David Bowie as the opening act for his 2004 North American tour.Sometimes, DeLaughter imagines a more manageable ensemble. “A band with 25 people, it’s not a happy-clappy experience,” he said, referring to a description of the Polyphonic Spree used by an English journalist. But once the band hits the stage, all in colored robes, bigger becomes better.”Something about getting onstage and playing this big, happy music – we get smiles on our faces,” said DeLaughter.The Polyphonic Spree has an Internet-only EP, “Wait,” featuring covers of songs by Nirvana and the Psychedelic Furs, available Sept. 16, and a full-length CD, “The Fragile Army,” set for release next year.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org