A solo cult hero is something to be

“To be labeled anything is, I guess, a good thing,” Keller Williams breathes into the other end of the phone. “Whatever anyone wants to call me is great, as long as they come to the show.”

Let him entertain you: Keller Williams “really, really” loves to play a free show. Photo by C.Taylor Crothers.

It’s tempting to think that Williams sounds fatigued because he’s been asked that same question—what it’s like to be thought of as a “one-man jam band”—dozens, if not hundreds of times in interviews. But, while that may be true, the more likely reason is that Williams is on a hike near his home in Fredericksburg, Va. His 4-year-old daughter Ella tows him along and occasionally distracts him from the interview with excited cries of “Look! A butterfly!”

After he has a moment to think about the question, Williams elaborates.

“I think that has kind of turned into my day job,” he says. “Everything else is turning into a side project. I think that I’m going to always have to keep that in the forefront.”

Williams has spent the better part of the past 14 years making a name for himself with an elaborate one-man stage show. He plays samples on a bands-worth of instruments, looping them to create complex songs that have a groove-oriented feel not unlike that of a jam-oriented band. A longtime fan of jam music, it’s not entirely surprising that Williams’ lyrics and overall style of performance—not to mention tours and collaborations with groups like The String Cheese Incident—have helped find him a unique niche in the jam-band community.

But, his “day job” to one side, Williams is audibly excited when he talks about that “everything else” in his touring schedule. When he’s not performing solo, Williams is playing with his “dream band”—bassist Keith Moseley from The String Cheese Incident, guitarist Gibb Droll and drummer Jeff Sipe, best known for his work in the Aquarium Rescue Unit and Leftover Salmon. The trio originally backed Williams on a 2007 tour as the WMDs, but the collaboration has since taken on a life of its own. Their double-disc-plus-DVD release, Live, was released in September.

“I feel that the most recent collaboration I’ve done with Mosley, Droll and Sipe is some of the best music I’ve ever made,” Williams says. “I’m really having a great time making music with these guys.”

When he’s not performing solo, or with Mosley, Droll and Sipe, Williams has yet another sideline: recording. Immediately after Live was completed, he says, he was starting yet another solo album—his 15th recording in 14 years—and he has a batch of songs written for a children’s album, which he’s hoping to record in 2009. One might think that such an output was driven by massive demand, but Williams insists that this isn’t the case.

“Even with the record industry the way it is, my records aren’t really selling,” he says, half laughing. “It’s not really something I’m doing for the money. I’m kind of documenting, and getting these songs down and recorded and out and released. I’m not really worried about if they sell or not. It’s kind of a very expensive hobby, but it’s one that I love doing, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Williams is quick to admit that his solo shows are his bread-and-butter, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. It allows him to play smaller shows and unusual venues, which are often unsuited for a larger and more expensive full band. A great example of this is his upcoming show in Asheville—a free, outdoor performance on Lexington Avenue, next to the urban mural area of Interstate 240.

Other performers might have a hard time getting all that excited about playing a concert for anyone who shows up under a decorated highway overpass, but Williams seems truly delighted by the idea.

“I love to play Asheville, and I really, really love to play a free show,” he says. “It’s really cool for me to be able to do something that I really love in front of people who don’t have to pay to get in. Just being in Asheville—it’s one of my favorite cities on the East Coast. I always love coming there. Coming there and being among the people there is going to be exciting.”

And, even for someone who lives and breathes music, as Williams does, he still sounds enthusiastic about the subject.

“There’s a couple of other acts on the bill,” he says about the Asheville show. “So, I’m excited to see some music.”

[Steve Shanafelt is a freelance writer and publisher based in Spartanburg, S.C.]

who: Keller Williams, EOTO, Josh Phillips Folk Festival and more
what: A free “Just because you’re Asheville” concert presented by Greenlife Grocery, Asheville Brewing Company and Mountain Roots Management, with alcohol wristband sales benefiting the Dogwood Alliance.
where: Lexington Avenue, between Woodfin Street and the I-240 overpass.
when: Saturday, Oct. 25, 4 p.m. (Free. For more information, visit www.kellerwilliams.net or call Greenlife Grocery at 254-5440.)

 

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