Keller Williams is known as the one-man band extraordinaire of the jam-band world. But that doesn’t make him a one-trick pony. This spring and summer alone, he’s not only taking his acclaimed solo show on the road but also performing with two of his other myriad projects, Keller with the Travelin’ McCourys and More Than A Little.
While each situation provides a different creative outlet for Williams, the solo show – which he brings to the River Street Jazz Café on Friday, June 14 — provides a certain level of freedom, both musically and logistically.
“Absolutely,” Williams said in a recent phone interview with Highway 81 Revisited. “It’s small- scale. We’re able to go fast and get to different places and play different time zones in a weekend. And it’s very freeing. There’s a certain kind of freedom I have as a solo act, too. There’s no real decision making, at least on stage. I can pretty much go anywhere, the freedom to go anywhere and play anything is there, and that’s a real joy. And I love playing with bands, but we’re limited to the material we know and there’s certain improvisations, but [in the solo show there’s] a lot more choices and songs to chose from.”
While Williams is obviously the only person on stage for his solo performances, he is not alone, in a sense. He’s surrounded by a host of instruments and gadgetry, which allow him to loop sounds and create an experience that flies in the face of the “guy with an acoustic guitar” tradition.
“The solo show is usually a couple guitars, a bass on a stand and a guitar with a synthesizer pickup to do all types of weird synthesizer things as well as horns and flutes, pianos and organs, and there’s the Roland Pansonic, which is a drum sampler. Nothing is prerecorded; it’s done right there on the spot.”
Williams said he started adding the new technology in the mid-’90s, with a little inspiration from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten.
“Kind of just as a solo act, with a guitar and a microphone, and maybe a djembe drum, after hours and hours of being that guy in the corner of a bar or restaurant for years and years and wanting different avenues to go down organically without having to press a button and not being able to afford humans, I started to experiment with different gear,” he recalled. “That was probably ’96, ’97.
“By 1998 I got to open for Victor Wooten. He was looping, and he showed me the right kind of gear to use and the right way to hook it up. I give a lot of credit to Victor Wooten. I was doing it, but he showed me the right stuff to use and different ways to use it. He definitely led me on the right path.”
Williams’ latest release in his series of one-word-titled albums is “Keys.” It’s a digital-only collection of solo piano and vocal interpretations of Grateful Dead tunes, with all proceeds going to the Dead’s own Rex Foundation.
“I’ve definitely been singing a lot of those songs by myself since I was like17 or so,” he said. “When it came down to actually recording them, it’s really important to get the words right, and some of the words were a little bit off [laughs]. But that’s a theory or concept I’ve never really let myself do, doing a solo piano record, not necessarily all covers.
“The whole Rex Foundation covers thing started in 2007, when I put out a ‘Grateful Grass’ record that’s doing really well over the course of the years. I went ahead and did a follow-up to that and do that piano record. It seemed like a right fit to do for the Rex Foundation, a nonprofit started by the band in the 1980s. It’s a bit of a sleepy record. There’s definitely a few situations it’s good for, like dinner with the in-laws, or something like that.”
As for selecting the tracks, Williams said he didn’t have much of a choice.
“They kind of chose me, really, like all the covers I do,” he said. “Seven or eight years ago, I moved into a house with a piano and was able to play a lot more piano. Sitting down, I kind of gravitated toward Jerry ballads, and that’s kind of how they appeared on this record.”
Williams, who performed earlier this week in Bethlehem as Keller and The Kimocks with Steve Kimock and John Kimock, recently formed More Than A Little, a larger band that has been hitting theaters, clubs and the festival circuit.
“It’s a 6-piece kind of soulful, fun band: Bass, drums, guitars, keyboards and two show-stealing female singers. I found these folks in the gospel/r&b scene in Richmond, Va. And we do a handful of my tunes; some are brand new, some are very old, in kind of a soulful, funky fashion, and there are several different covers some done straight-up funky like the originals and others changed and bent into shape. Some you may have heard of them, some very obscure, but we have a really good time.”
Williams said a More Than A Little live album should be available in November.
Working on the different projects concurrently keeps things fresh for Williams. And he said they end up influencing each other.
“Oh yeah, yeah. With More Than A Little and The Travelin’ McCourys, it’s a little bit like apples and kumquats, a couple different things. There are a few tunes that both projects have done. One thing I think that both projects share are vocal harmonies, and I think that some of those slower songs cross over into soulful songs as well as into more like a gospel-type of bluegrass.
“But all of the projects come out in my solo show. Once I’m up there by myself, I can definitely try bluegrass as well as go into the funk realm. So it’s a whole lot of influence taken with me into the solo show, for sure.”