By Michael Lester
Quirky, deadpan instrumental wizard Keller Williams is so multitalented, few of his fans would shrug at the suggestion he was peddling homes, moonlighting as an agent with Keller Williams Realty, the company whose red signs are staked out front of an available properties all over the globe.
“It’s been around for along time,” Keller said of the inevitable Realtor queries that he admits have grown stale. He’s got no ties to the realty company.
But “after a couple cocktails, I AM Keller Williams Realty. I have a whole spiel I go into. It can be fun. After a while, after a couple drinks, I can start swinging houses: ‘It’s a buyer’s market. If you’re looking for something, let me know.’”
When this one-man musical “looping” orchestra brings his mesmerizing solo show to the sold-out Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe Saturday — during which he’ll personally play guitar, bass, keyboards, possibly piano and a drum machine — don’t expect to see any of those Keller Williams Realty signs in the building.
“I can’t recall if I’ve been there before,” Keller said of the intimate Opera House. “But, usually, if I can’t recall being there or not, it excites me. It opens up a whole new experience.”
That’s not to say the realty sign thing hasn’t been done before.
Back in 1992 and 1993, “kids started to pull (Keller Williams Realty) signs up out of yards at houses for sale,” recalled Keller, 44. “They would bring them to the shows with the mud still in the stakes. I got a letter in the mail from corporate asking me to ask them not to pull their signs out of the ground. It’s vandalism.”
Perhaps best known for collaborations with String Cheese Incident and the Travelin’ McCourys, an ensemble that includes two sons of bluegrass legend Del McCoury, Keller’s solo act has, since its early tavern days in Virginia the 1990s, developed a faithful enough following to book tour dates from coast to coast.
We caught up with the musically-eclectic Williams earlier this month — he attended abut 100 Grateful Dead shows between 1987 and 1995 — shortly after his tour bus rolled into Fayetteville, Ark., for a “More than a Little” show.
That’s his latest collaboration with a collection of funk musicians the Fredericksburg, Va., native met in Richmond, Va.
When we spoke to Keller, he was in the midst of performing 16 shows in 17 days with that lineup. Prior to that, they had endured through a stretch of a dozen shows in 13 days.
Keller, a prolific songwriter whose catalog includes about 160 originals, has done the “band thing” like this before, but he’s refreshingly pragmatic and honest about his reasons for going solo most of the time. Touring with fewer people means a bigger payday for him. Pure and simple.
During his solo tours, Keller’s touring party consists of only two others — his “stage guy” and his tour manager, he said.
Asked how many concerts he performed in 2013, Keller was surprisingly prompt in his response, saying he was on the road for 134 shows last year, 75 percent of them solo gigs.
With control of his touring schedule, Keller said he tries to limit his solo gigs to weekends, flying out from home on a Thursday and performing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. When the three-man crew lands at its first destination, they rent a minivan to travel from venue to venue.
That makes it easier on his family. Keller and wife Emily, whom he married 16 years ago, have two young children: Ella, 9, and Cabell, 5. (Emily, “lets me know all the time that she’s younger than me,” Keller joked.)
Keller first got into music hearing bluegrass and country his parents played on vinyl and 8-track back in the ’70s. The Williams family had a piano in their home — his mother played a bit — and Keller poked at the black and white keys at a young age.
Keller identified his first musical influence as CBS variety show “Hee-Haw,” which his parents also introduced him to.
“It was Buck Owens and Roy Clark picking and grinning ,” Keller fondly recalled .“I was probably three (years old) when that show was popular. I really went for it. That’s when I really went for it. That’s why I started to pretend to play guitar. Once I moved beyond Hee-Haw, I got into Kiss. I was collecting all the Kiss records.”
Once he discovered Kiss, Keller would rock out guitar parts with a hockey stick.
The hockey stick “looked like Ace Frehley’s guitar,” Keller fondly recalled. “By the time I turned 12, a friend showed me some (guitar) chords. By 13, 14 and 15, I was putting chords with songs on the radio. Playing Ramones, REM, as well as classic rock. I had my first gig when I was 16.”
Before ending a brief interview with Keller, we couldn’t help but ask another cliché question about comedic and physical comparisons between him and actor-rocker Jack Black.
Yes, Keller says, he’s heard those comparisons. Somewhat surprisingly, Keller’s never met Jack Black. But he has covered “Kielbasa Sausage” by Black’s band Tenacious D.
“I have all his records and seen all his Tenacious D episodes,” Keller said of Black. “He’s a brilliant genius. I’d be honored to meet him. I think we’d get along. He’s all over the map. An amazing singer. He’s hilarious. A funny, good guitar player. My kids love him. He’s done a bunch of kids movies, a bunch of voice-over stuff, like ‘Kung Fu Panda.’”