Keller Williams goes it alone in the guitar shop

A review of Keller Williams at the Paradise Rock Club on March 27, 2009

, Staff Writer

I’ve seen Keller Williams perform before – it was nearly a decade ago, and he was opening for Béla Fleck’s band. Even then, his instrumental skills and looping capabilities were well-developed and impressive, and “Freeker By The Speaker”, stretched to ten minutes and expanded over several guitars, has stuck with me after all this time.

The Keller Williams who performed Friday night at the Paradise, however, was a very different performer than the one from all those years ago. His stage persona has clearly been coming into its own in the years: back in the day, he seemed pretty intently focused on working his guitar and setting up his trademark loop jams. These aspects of Williams’ music are still there, of course, but have been refined and put to use enough now that he seems far more comfortable on stage in front of an audience. The Keller Williams of 2009 walks around playing fast and complex parts on his acoustic guitar like they’re no big deal, getting right up to the front and leaning in so those in the first couple rows could watch his hands fly up and down the strings, playing chord and melody on just the one instrument.

Williams also has become more willing, musically, to explore. At one point during the second set, for instance, he picked up a miniature upright bass and started noodling around on it. Before long, his notes turned into the immediately-familiar bass-line of “The Joker”, and soon Keller was leading the audience in a bare-bones cover of the song, letting them take the lead on the wolf-whistle after “some people call me Maurice”, himself sliding lazily in between notes. After the song itself had been played through, he altered the bass-line a little bit and allowed it to loop, delving into classic Keller Williams territory, poking at one of his many guitars, continually adding layers until the song was nice and dense, and then took a solo over the band he had just constructed.

The “theme” of Williams’ tour is a guitar shop: about a dozen guitars, with price tags attached, were mounted up on a wall, Keller being an employee of the “store”, I suppose. In addition, he had at his disposal an electric piano, his bass, a drum machine, and a theremin, the last of which he played over an extended instrumental jam. His usual staccato guitar lines zipped along while he conducted notes out of the theremin, bringing it to high-pitched squeals and bubbling lows and sending the audience into a frenzy: balloons started making the rounds as everyone cheered and danced to the immensely catchy tune.

Keller’s two sets showcased a number of songs from his catalogue, one of note being a new composition, “Rush Limbaugh”, a kind of Jack Johnson-esque groove with some pretty overt lyrics directed towards its namesake (“Rush Limbaugh, you’re an asshole. You big old douche, you, I hope you fail”), which got the crowd clapping and cursing everyone’s favorite conservative radio personality. “Celebrate Your Youth” allowed him to show off his vocal percussion skills, which did more than enough to fill the space left by having no proper drum kit. “Jump into the river, dive into the sea,” he advised.

Williams has a good feel for the pacing of his sets. Often touted as a one-man jam band, it’s no surprise that he knows when to give long interludes and jams, stretching songs out. Really, one of the best things about seeing him live is watching as he wanders around his huge collection of equipment. You can almost see the gears in his head turning as he figures out what will be the next part added on top of everything else. Just as well, though, he knows when to skip the lengthy song construction and stick to his acoustic guitar. “Mullet Cut” was one such song, coming early in the second set and allowing the audience to focus solely on his virtuosic guitar work, which deserves as much attention as it can get. Keller Williams is a master guitar player, seemingly able to do anything at any speed, and it is his skill on this one instrument that seems to make his entire act come together. With just one guitar he’s able to be melody and accompaniment and this foundation, which he could have made a career out of even without the looping, is only bolstered by his abilities on other instruments and his uncanny rhythmic intelligence.

Another highlight was his closing the first set with a cover of an old Harry Belafonte tune, “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)”, a song fans were probably familiar with through The Grateful Dead’s cover since a lot of people were singing along right off the bat. Incidentally, he also did a cover of The Dead’s “Brokedown Palace”, which he performed sitting at his piano without further accompaniment.

Keller Williams certainly has come a long way since way back when, and deservedly so. He boasts some serious musicality on any number of instruments, his songwriting is quite good, and he’s definitely not one to miss the forest for the trees. Seemingly from nowhere does he turn a guitar line into a full ensemble, adding small parts here and there until a finished song is presented. In the moment of the performance, it’s easy to focus on the details, to pay attention to each individual part without taking a step back and hearing everyone work together, but inevitably it happens. It was at these moments of a collective realization of his abilities that the concert really took off and Williams propelled himself out of being just a one-man act but a true embodiment of the one-man band.

Leave a Reply