August 1, 2014 12:45 PM on the
Keller Williams, Jeff Austin, and Reed Mathis
Keller’s Grateful Grass delivers anything-but-traditional bluegrass versions of Grateful Dead favorites. The project’s lineup is always rotating, and Vibes is no exception. Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band) and Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green) join Keller this summer on the Grateful Grass at Seaside Park.
Keller Williams has been called guitars mad-scientist, a one-man-band for the new millennium and dozens of other clever sobriquets dreamed up by fans and music journalists trying to get a handle on his uplifting and ever-shifting style of music. Williams is considered by some but not by himself, to be a master of the acoustic guitar, known for his ability to solo over layers of spontaneously created loops. He is a generous performer who plays down to earth acoustic music that defies any effort to find a convenient pigeonhole. If pressed for a definition, Williams, as adept with language as he is with a guitar pick, calls it solo, acoustic jazzfunk reggae technograss – or simply – solo acoustic dance music.
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On stage, Williams exudes a restless yet mellow energy. Barefoot he dances in place, alternately spinning out long solo lines and bouncing chord clusters that draw listeners and dancers into his own private world of rhythm and melody. The songs flow like rivers, full of flickering, kaleidoscopic images revealing new shapes, colors and meanings with every listen. On the stage behind him is a forest of stringed instruments as well as a keyboard and various drums and percussion toys. Williams jumps between instruments seeking out the perfect sound, the perfect note, the perfect beat that will transport him and his audience.
Much has been made of Williams impressive array of stage gear. Hes willing to go on at length about each instrument and the complexities of creating loops and samples in real time, with nothing being pre-recorded. But isnt into technology for its own sake. Williams explains, My style evolved organically out of hours and hours of being on stage with one guitar and one mic. I wanted to create more of a dance vibe and make it more interesting for myself, and hopefully more interesting for the audience, too.
Williams is also a prolific recording artist, with ten albums and a DVD in his discography each of which carry one word titles. The latest CD in Williams growing catalogue is GRASS – credited to Keller & the Keels. The self-released album is a delightfully bizarre collection of anything-but-traditional bluegrass songs. Like most recordings from Keller, GRASS is self indulgent and possibly offensive to those who lack a sense of humor, but Keller had a damn good time recording it. For the project, Keller teamed up with old buddy and award-winning flat picker Larry Keel on guitar, and Larrys beautiful rock-solid in-the-pocket acoustic bass playing wife, Jenny Keel. The result is an organic and airy acoustic record featuring 10 songs, originals and unexpected covers tunes, that yield to a pure love of music. Williams farcical humor and the stellar picking of the ensemble is evident on the albums original tunes. Goofballs is a late night driving song, Williams says. You’re trying to stay awake to avoid a wreck and start thinking the weirdest things to stay alert. Local (Outdoor Organic) is a ballad about supporting local organic farmers. Crater in the Backyard showcases the trios instrumental prowess and talks about the wide-open spaces that get turned into strip malls and subdivisions.
Williams was born and raised in Fredericksburg, Virginia. My mom and dad sang in church and my mom played some piano, but their main instrument was the stereo, Williams quipped. I had a guitar at age three, but didnt learn any chords until I was 13, when a friend showed me three primary chords. I started copying songs off of classic rock radio. A few years later I started performing. Williams played in cover bands in high school and college, but he was also playing solo in non-music venues. I hit up restaurant owners and played while people were eating. The people weren’t there for music, so between songs there would be awkward silences. I started stringing songs together, so there wouldnt be any silence. William’s college band got good enough to build a regional following and open for national acts that came through town. When the band broke up, Williams went back to his day, or late afternoon – early evening job, of playing in restaurants. In 1995 Williams moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado for two years, then from 1997 to 2000 he had no address at all, living in campgrounds, truck stops and cheap ass motel rooms, playing constantly, sometime seven gigs a week, and barely making ends meet. But it honed his guitar playing and stage show to a fine edge.
“I saw The String Cheese Incident on my first stop in Colorado. They were playing a basement bar after the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1995. They were bouncing from reggae, to bluegrass, to rock, to salsa. I approached them as a fan and told them Id be happy to open for them for free. They took me up on that offer and I jumped onto their West Coast tour in spring of 1997. They were just starting to build their grassroots following, and I had so much fun opening and then going into the audience and dancing. Williams was already experimenting with looping, using a delay unit to so he could play along with himself. Then he opened a few shows for Victor Wooten, who had made an art out of creating loops on stage. Victor opened my ears and eyes to how you can use live phrase sampling (looping) on stage. Once I saw what he was doing, I incorporated it into my style and came up with my own recipes. As more young people started coming to my shows, I added bass guitar and realized I could fill up a venue with the whole spectrum of sound. The loops push me musically and open up different avenues for me to go down. My songs are deeply rooted in guitar and vocals. Looping is used to create a jam section, though there are some exceptions, where I set up a loop and sing over the top of it.”
Williams started recording albums in 1993 and cut three albums on his own dime FREEK, BUZZ and SPUN – before signing up with SCI Fidelity Records. Since he started recording, Williams has turned out almost one album a year, including three of his most successful releases: LAUGH (2002), HOME (2003) and his double live release STAGE (2004). I like one word titles because they sum up the process with the least amount of syllables.
Williams is currently finishing work on his next studio project YOUTH. “I’ve been at it for two and a half years and hope to have it out in fall of 2006. Its a collaborative process. I’ve flown all over the country to do sessions with my heroes and there are still more tracks to be done with more heroes at press time. To name drop a few: Bob Weir, Victor Wooten, Charlie Hunter, Derrek Phillips, Steve Kimock, John Molo, Martin Sexton, The String Cheese Incident, Sanjay Mishra and Fareed Haque to name just a few.”