One-man band for the digital age

Keller Williams
Who needs a hug? Keller Williams may be as talented as they come, but everybody needs a little reassurance now and then. photo by C. Taylor Crothers

It’s easy to assume guitarist Keller Williams has been blessed with a cadre of talented bandmates. On most of his recordings, his acoustic strummings are backed by drums, electric guitar, lap steel, cymbals and what sounds like a synthesizer.

But to see Williams on stage is to realize it’s just one guy making all those sounds — and all at the same time. At this point in pop history, everyone is familiar with the use of tape loops, but here, “there is no tape involved – these are all digital loops,” says Williams, who comes to The Orange Peel on Wednesday.

Williams typically will unwind a circular series of notes on the guitar, feed the signal into a computerized digital-loop unit, which sends the signal back through the amps, allowing Williams to essentially accompany himself by playing another riff on top of it. He then will bang out a groove on a snare drum and cymbal — or for that matter, on a plastic pipe — to create a complementary drum signature, and so on, until he has achieved the sound of a full band.

Williams was inspired to go the one-man route in the early ’90s after his band broke up and he found that he could make more money playing the same joints by himself. The looping idea came about “because I just wanted to make things more interesting and get a bigger sound,” Williams reveals during a phone interview.

“By just playing alone, I found I could get more opening gigs because it was a snap to just use the headliner’s equipment instead of having a full band that had to break down and set up every night.”

That’s how he found himself embraced by the jam-band scene. He got a series of gigs opening for the String Cheese Incident, then for the Dave Matthews Band — which turned their fans onto his music. And on stage, Williams is pursuing the same improvisational, “look-ma-no-plan” attack as many of the jam bands.

“The jam-band audience is a cool audience,” says Williams, a native of Fredericksburg, Va. “They’re very open-minded, and they’re not just into one style of music — they’re into techno, jazz, bluegrass, folk and everything else in addition to rock and blues.”

Williams definitely paid his dues. From 1997 to 2000, he lived the life of the itinerant musician, staying at campgrounds, truck stops and cheap motels, playing constantly — sometimes logging seven gigs a week — and barely making ends meet. He actually got his “break” when he caught a String Cheese Incident gig at a bar after the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. Impressed with that band’s eclectic spirit, he volunteered to work for free as the band’s opening act. His offer was accepted, and word about Williams’ unique talents began to spread.

At the time, Williams was already experimenting with looping, using a delay unit to so he could play along with himself. Then he opened a few shows for Victor Wooten (from Bela Fleck & the Flecktones), who was a much more accomplished creator of onstage looping effects. Williams credits Wooten with opening his ears to a more ambitious and creative use of looping. Williams says he came to see looping as a way of creating a jam section all by his lonesome.

Williams believes that the concert stage is the best showcase for what he does. Although his studio releases allow him to use “cleaner” digital loops, those discs are no match, he says, for the give-and-take that happens with the audience “when I’m up there, essentially just trying to keep up with myself.”

Like some of the more whimsical jam bands — Phish comes to mind — many of Williams’ songs are goofy, tongue-in-cheek or satirical, and boast titles like “Dance of the Freek” and “Blazeabago.” And, like his pals in Phish, he has an idiosyncratic taste in cover tunes: On Stage, his 2004 live album, he covered “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Under Pressure,” “For What It’s Worth” and “Moondance.”

Williams’ latest release was a new direction for him – a collaboration with other players. Grass, released in March, was credited to Keller & the Keels, and found him joining forces with his old buddy, acoustic flatpicker Larry Keel, and his wife, stand-up bassist Laura Keel. Grass was an irreverent set of bluegrass-style tunes. Among the tracks were ironic bluegrass interpretations of folk-rock tunes, including two Grateful Dead songs: “Dupree Diamond Blues” and “Loser,” which Williams began and ended with the chorus from the Beck song of the same name. They also did a mountain-style sendup of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” — showcasing some hot-shot picking from Larry Keel — and gleefully Frankensteined together two Tom Petty tunes to come up with “Mary Jane’s Last Breakdown.”

Williams’ next disc, slated for an early 2007 release, is also a collaborative effort — but a much more ambitious one. Titled Youth, the disc features Williams hooking up with some of his musical idols, including Bob Weir, Wooten, Charlie Hunter, Derrek Phillips, Steve Kimock, John Molo, Martin Sexton, String Cheese Incident, Sanjay Mishra and Fareed Haque. For a solo performer, it’s a surprisingly sociable project.

“I’ve been at it for two-and-a-half years,” says Williams. “It’s been a real collaborative process. I’ve flown all over the country to do sessions with my heroes, and there are still more tracks to be done with more of my heroes.”

[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at]

Keller Williams performs at The Orange Peel on Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 9 p.m. $24. 225-5851.

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