Words by: Eric Podolsky
Keller Williams :: 11.21.09 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA
If there is one underlying theme which unites all the music that pours off the stage at a Keller Williams show it would be that everything is done for the sake of fun. Pure, uninhibited fun. Keller's unwavering devotion to making people feel good has earned him a devoted fan base, as well as harsh criticism from some who have called his music silly and frivolous. Regardless, experiencing him live is the only real way to get a true sense of his musical world. At the Great American Music Hall, Keller threw it down to benefit the Rex Foundation, and showed us once again how he unwaveringly follows his muse at every turn.
The night showed great promise from the start, beginning with a small pre-show Rex Foundation reception in the grand Victorian balconies of the gorgeous GAMH. Noshing on wine and cheese, Keller hobnobbed with guests, some of whom were just fans willing to make a $50 Rex donation so they could meet Keller and get a signed copy of his new album, Odd. The Rex Foundation is a charitable non-profit originally started by the Grateful Dead. Since Jerry died Rex has relied on artists like Keller to help its cause by playing musical events like this one to raise funds. And though Rex is smaller than it once was, it continues to make grants to worthy recipients each year.
Over some delightful saffron risotto and Shiraz, Keller let us know that GAMH is in his top five favorite venues to play (it was his first West Coast gig ever when he opened for SCI back in '97). For him, California audiences in general are much more receptive of his music, making it easier to incorporate that coveted give-and-take artist/audience interaction into shows. Since Rex was hosting this night, conversations often turned towards things Dead related, and stories of tours past were shared like joints. At one point, Keller mentioned his love for One From the Vault, the '75 Dead show at GAMH. The spirit was definitely in the air, and was later acknowledged by Keller during the show with four Grateful Dead covers.
An hour later, the full audience was in place, facing a stage bizarrely decorated like a Guitar Center, complete with a cash register, a multitude of every guitar imaginable hanging from the back wall, including a Hofner (Paul McCartney) bass, a guitar signed by Steve-O (?), and a "No Stairway" sign. Given Keller's trademark lightheartedness and sense of humor, this all seemed somewhat appropriate. The lights went down, and a lone acoustic guitar started through the PA, rolling complex melodies peppered with harmonics. Keller then sauntered out from stage left, barefoot, playing the tune he started backstage. Thus began a happy night of grooves that ventured all over the musical spectrum.
There is really no good way to describe what Keller Williams does onstage to someone who has not witnessed him live. It all revolves around his Gibson Echoplex Delay system, which records, loops and layers anything he plays or sings to build songs and jams. The man has completely mastered this art to the point where his shows are essentially stream-of-consciousness grooves, where Keller will play anything that comes to the top of his head, then elaborate on it in real-time. Watching him perform, the speed at which he continuously pulled lush, layered sonic textures out of mid-air was transfixing. He exuded an almost child-like approach to music making, hopping around his own music store stage like a kid in a playground.
| Keller Williams by Rod Snyder|
After a few originals, Keller dove into the first Dead cover of the night with "Bird Song," turning it into a jazzified groove with a walking bass line. His freewheeling, breezy vocal, accompanied by his soundman Louis Gosain on vocal harmonies, suited the ballad nicely, and a tapestry of layered birdcalls gave the tune some mellow ambiance. From there, Keller dove right in to the techno-ish dance party beatz, with some looped beatbox vocals and funky licks. "Freeker By the Speaker" showcased more of the same, as he fiddled with all sorts of percussion toys, cutting his mix in and out to create a start-stop dance-party. A cover of Nirvana's "All Apologies" saw him form an original bluegrass-like vocal loop out of the song's final chant, "All alone is all we are," which worked very well.
Keller's free-form approach to his music imbues it with his personality in a very intimate way. Saying this, it is clear that Keller Williams is a very serene and centered person who is in touch with his inner child in the best possible way. His playfulness is infectious. But through all of his lighthearted music-making silliness, it was hard not to notice the lack of emotional depth in the music. Nevertheless, this doesn't detract too much from his performance. His happy-go-lucky lyrics work well in their own element, and are more than made up for by his incredible instrumental virtuosity.
But, it doesn't always translate well in the songs he covers. This was especially the case with his take on the Dead's "Black Peter." Keller's funny-voiced delivery seemed to take the weight out of Robert Hunter's lyrics about death and dying. On the other hand, his solo piano take on "Terrapin Station" was delivered with complete earnestness in a rich baritone, and worked much better. His "St. Stephen" cover near the end of the show was an off-the-cuff sing-along, and more a playful nod to the audience than anything poignant.
Vocals aside, Keller's guitar playing was constantly astounding. He played a multitude of different guitars over the course of the night, and the sounds he coaxed out of them all were amazing. His dexterity on "Breathe" was almost Leo Kottke-like in its circular, forward rolling momentum, and the man can play one hell of a bass, too. Nowhere was the contradiction between his shallow vocals and amazing playing made more apparent than the self-aware, self-mocking lyrics of "Novelty Song":
| Keller Williams :: 03.02 :: New York|
This is just a novelty song
The kind that means nothing at all
Please take my advice, tune out the words
And focus on the bass
A really ignorant, stupid song
I wish it had never seen the light of day at all
But it did/ May I suggest go check out the t-shirts and the CDs
Or focus on the bass
The bass jam out of this song led into a welcome, super-funky cover of Beck's "Hollywood Freaks," which he really made his own; a clear highlight of the night. Keller ended the show with two of his finest feel-good songs, "Best Feeling" and "Celebrate Your Youth," both of which saw more amazing guitar work, and more silliness. In an unabashed display, having layered a nice loop groove, Keller busted out devil sticks and skillfully tossed them around for a while before picking up his guitar again.
In a way, this undeniably goofy act seemed to sum up Keller's musical philosophy, which unapologetically values having fun over creating high art. For example, his shows will often contain just as many covers as originals, just to get the audience into it. Keller does not approach music-making in the self-important way that artists such as Ryan Adams or Conner Oberst do, and it's clear that he has no desire to. He is a musical prodigy, first and foremost, and his instrumental work is the majority of his music's appeal. His carefree attitude and lyrics are simply the festive box in which his musical gift is presented. That being said, it is hard to leave a Keller Williams show and not be affected by his music's life-affirming attitude, which is summed up in the lyrics to "More Than A Little":
Work like you don't need the money
Love like you've never been hurt
Dance like nobody is watching
It is precisely that mental outlook that Keller Williams wants to give you.
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