June 15, 2005
“You can’t do justice reading about me or listening to the records. The best way to understand what I do is to see it firsthand,” said Keller Williams by phone from his birthplace and current hometown of Fredericksburg, Va.That, of course, is the constant sentiment in the jam-band world, of which Williams is a prominent inhabitant. In the jam realm, the presence of – and even spiritual interaction with – a living, breathing crowd of people is an essential element in the music. And assembling an audience of like-minded listener/participants is a big part of the experience.With Williams, however, there’s the extra dimension of sight, of actually seeing Williams and what he does. Short and shaggy, Williams doesn’t exactly cut a striking figure. But for gaining insight into just what it is the singer and multi-instrumentalist does, and how he does it, it is necessary to see him in action. Williams is not a jam band, but a solo musician who, through a combination of looping devices, electronic sampling, numerous instruments and dexterous fingers, is able to jam all by himself. With his feet, fingers and mouth in motion, he is a sight on stage. “Sight,” in fact, is the title of Williams’ first official DVD, due out June 28.But fans, and the curious, will get an even closer look at Williams when he headlines the second annual Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in Snowmass Village this weekend. Williams performs tonight at 7 p.m., with San Francisco’s New Monsoon – a proper jam band, featuring seven members – and local band Seventh Hour opening.Day 2 of the festival on Fanny Hill features socially conscious band Michael Franti & Spearhead, with alt-country rocker Chuck Prophet opening. Closing the festival on Sunday are the winners of a local battle-of-the-bands competition.
As the name promises, the event also features chili, with attendees sampling the concoctions of competitors in the International Chili Society’s district and regional cook-offs, and beer from some 40 microbreweries.The appearance of Williams is a rarity in the valley. Williams has deep Colorado ties: He lived in Steamboat Springs in the mid-’90s; his record label (SCI Fidelity) and publicity/management team (Madison House) are both in Boulder; and he has a long-standing affiliation with Colorado’s String Cheese Incident, who backed him on his 1999 album “Breathe.” Still, Keller has played just one show in Aspen, and the details he remembers – it was in a small club and he was the opening act – place it nearly a decade ago. (Williams’ name now tends to grace the top of the bill at such festivals as Bonnaroo, and this year’s Big Summer Classic, which features Williams, Franti, and New Monsoon, as well as String Cheese Incident, hits Red Rocks Amphitheatre July 2-3.)The musician who played that long-ago club date was a primitive version of what Keller Williams is today. In the mid-’90s, Williams was just breaking with his beginnings as a standard solo act. (Prior to that, he had been a teenage Deadhead – “an unhealthy fascination from 1987 until 1995, when Jerry died,” he say – and the typical member of typical high school and college bands.) “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 said. “I put in hours and hours as a solo act.”All those hours trying to grab the attention of crowds who had come to see the headliners – String Cheese, and other up-and-coming jam bands – pushed Williams to try some new things. Aiming at a bigger sound, but determined for financial and logistical reasons to remain a solo act, he used tape loops and electronics to provide a virtual backing band. “As the hours onstage had gone by, I wanted to make it more fun for myself and the audience. So I picked up different instruments and techniques,” he said. His conceptual thinking, however, was ahead of his technical know-how, and the initial results were not promising. “I was using totally the wrong tools for that,” he said.
The major turning point came in 1997. Williams had the opening slot for a two-night stand by Victor Wooten, best known as the bassist extraordinaire for Béla Fleck & the Flecktone, who was playing a duo with a drummer at the Black Cat near Detroit.”Just watching what Victor was doing, how he was looping bass lines, rhythm lines and solos over it, and how his gear was configured,” said Williams. “That next summer, I really got into it.”Williams’ gigs these days come in a variety of forms. If he’s in full tour mode, traveling in a roomy tour bus, he’ll bring the full complement of guitars: acoustics, basses and an electric-guitar synthesizer that permits a variety of sounds – “saxophone or trumpet or a monk groaning,” he says. If he’s flying to the show, the gear gets pared down some. The keyboard he toured with for several months last year has been shelved: “I had a bad night on the keyboard once, so I stopped bringing it with me. It’s being punished for the moment.”For all the technological skills he has acquired, Williams remains a musician first. It is a point of pride that all the sounds an audience hears are made live onstage, not prerecorded. None of the electronic wizardry obscures the fact that he is a sensational guitarist, good enough to be praised in Guitar Player magazine. His foremost influence is the late guitar great Michael Hedges. And in the jam community, which prizes the organic and spontaneous, Williams earns no demerits for embracing electronics. Last year’s double-live CD “Stage” – Williams has a thing for one-word titles – earned a Jammy Award for best live album.The solitary figure he cuts onstage is not the only thing that sets Williams apart in the jam world. He also has an off-kilter sense of humor that he uses instead of the hippie drivel that mark so much of the lyrics of his tour brethren. “Stage” has such tunes as “Gate Crashers Suck,” which features almost the entire list of words that can get one fired from this newspaper; “Boob Job,” and “Novelty Song,” which instructs the listener to “take my advice and tune out the words / And focus on the bass.” Williams also shows a skewed sense in his choice of cover tunes: from Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” to the Grateful Dead’s “Birdsong,” from “Moondance” to “Rapper’s Delight.”
“That comes from putting myself in the audience and what I’d want to hear,” said Williams, who shares his musical tastes on “Keller’s Cellar,” his syndicated radio show (heard on Aspen’s KSPN Sundays at 9 p.m.). “Humor and politics and things that are going on in their minds. But I stay on the positive side. I can’t think too much about heartache and breakups. I try to make myself laugh and hopefully make the audience laugh themselves and forget about their problems.”Now that Williams has mastered the problem of making a one-man band out of his own self, he’s started to peer over the horizon at what comes next. For one, there is more collaboration. On several dates this summer, including at last week’s Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Williams will perform as a trio with the Keels – the acoustic duo of guitarist Larry Keel and bassist Jenny Keel. Williams’ next CD, “Youth,” will be a series of collaborative recordings; he has finished two songs with String Cheese, and done a session with the cutting-edge groove band Modereko, on whose album, “Solar Igniter,” Williams guest-starred. Up next is a recording date with singer-songwriter Martin Sexton.Beyond that, Williams is just soaking in the fact that he’s hit a comfort level with his array of instruments and devices. Logistics dictate an end to adding more toys to his travel bag. So now is the time to focus on purely musical issues.”I’ve definitely come to a comfortable place with the gear and instruments, especially for the constraints of commercial air travel,” he said. “But I like to think that it’s still evolving. Musically it’s still evolving.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org