Keller Williams is a hell of a guitar player. Like the late, great Michael Hedges — one of his idols — Williams handles his acoustic like the frets are on fire, and he has to snuff the flames as fast as he can, one fingertip at a time.
But Williams, who plays the Live Wire Saturday, March 6, also shares Hedges’ talents for creating innovative melodies out of quirky tunings, using great wrist–slaps of percussion, and carving dexterous and rhythmic chord progressions out of deep and hidden places.
Williams is also hysterically funny, and writes polysyllabic lyrics that use images and rhymes straight from observational standup comedy (a.k.a. the absurdities of everyday life, in particular the everyday life of a journeyman musician with an infallible sense of humor).
For all these reasons, Williams is a hero at jam–band festivals, where a premium is placed on restless and unpredictable musical creativity.
He’s often called a “one–man jam band,” because although he’s been known to rock it up on occasion with other musicians, he prefers to perform solo, using a machine called the Echoplex Delay System. This allows him to “loop” bass, drums, keys and even a second guitar, and improvise live over the repeating riff he’s created.
There’s a reason Williams called his latest album Odd; nobody else in the music world does what he does, in exactly the way he does it.
And before you have to ask — he is not, repeat not, a Savannah–area realtor.
Where did the looping come from?
Keller Williams: I think it was just the hours upon hours spent onstage – well, at that time in most cases I was in the corner of a restaurant, after I moved a table and set up my little Ronco–on–a–stick. Hours of being that guy in the corner, kind of the background music at the bars and the restaurants with no cover charge – people not necessarily coming to see music. There just happened to be a dude in the corner playing music. I was that dude.
People weren’t really paying attention anyway, so why not make it more interesting for me, and create more musical avenues to go down?
There were sequencers where you stepped on a button and a whole band came in. And that’s kind of cool, but I wasn’t really looking to do that. I was looking to go a little more organic. That’s kind of where it started, and it blossomed into this monster.
Somewhere you credited the great bassist Victor Wooten with turning you on to looping. I remember Jaco Pastorius doing that stuff back in the day, long before Victor.
Keller Williams: That’s probably where Victor saw it first. It wasn’t until I got way into it that I saw Jaco do it. I actually got really into Jaco this past year – I was diving into his music, and learning about his crazy history – and after that I saw the whole looping thing. It was the infantile stages of that concept, yet groundbreaking at that time.
There’s so much improvisation in jam bands. But when you’re using the Echoplex, aren’t you locked into a specific thing? Don’t you kind of have to follow the loop, so to speak?
Keller Williams: With one Echoplex, you set up a loop and it goes over and over until you stop it. I’m using three Echoplexes – so I got the bass going into one, the drums going into one, then everything else goes into another. So I’m kind of going into like a DJ world, but instead of using a laptop or turntables or something, I’m setting up my own samples. That I create onstage. And then I can take out the drums and just have bass, and sing or solo over that, and then bring back in the drums, like the way a DJ would.
Right now, I’m kind of riding the line of the DJ world. I don’t think DJs or people that are really into electronica would possibly agree with me. But that’s my intention; I’m slowly leaning toward that electronica world with what I’m doing now. Without alienating the people that have been coming to see me for years, that are used to the solo acoustic guitar thing. I mean, that’s still very prevalent in my show right now.
Can you change the rhythm in the middle of a tune? How malleable is your gear setup?
Keller Williams: My set is very grounded and rooted in solo acoustic music. It’s not like every single song I’m just gonna set up a one–chord loop and solo over the top of it. That aspect is used for jam sections.
There’s multiple songs that have multiple changes and things like that, and there’ll be a section or two where it’ll open up and I’ll create a one, two, three–chord groove and solo over that.
It’s not like I do it every song. It’s kind of like an added bonus – and as the years have gone by, it’s something that I’ve kinda become addicted to.
I long for the shows that will actually be advertised as “loopless” — where I can actually go and do something that doesn’t involve electronics. Just imagine — you plug in and you stand in front of a microphone, and you play. And that’s it!
But like I said, I’ve kind of created a monster, and if I was just to show up and do that, then chances are high that there’ll be some young, trippin’ people that are disappointed.
You seem to have it all, control–wise, playing that way. Yet you’ve sometimes toured as part of a band. What do you get from the band experience?
Keller Williams: The band experience is kind of living out childhood fantasies, of playing a collaborative, slightly rockin’ music in front of the kind of audiences that I’ve been getting the last couple of years.
It’s not necessarily something that my fan base is itching for; it’s more self–indulgent, I think, on my end. I tell ya, each facet — whether it be the solo or the band thing — makes me want to do the other even more. Each helps the other out in my world.
Do you use humor to simply take the piss out of things, or is that an essential part of who you are?
Keller Williams: Absolutely necessary. I’ve never approached this career, or this musical world, with any real expectations. I’ve learned from folks that you can’t really put a lot of stock into it, and hope to make it.
Back when I was starting, when I was a teenager, it was all about getting signed. Getting the record deal! And once you get the record deal, then you can get on the radio.
And once you get on the radio, you can go play in California!
I was told, by a lot of people, not to get my hopes up and not to take it too seriously. Because then you’re just going to set yourself up for heartbreak.
So I’ve always approached it in a very self–indulgent way, and try to make myself laugh. To stay away from politics. I’ve been in love with the same woman for many years, so there’s love songs but there’s not a whole lot of love songs.
Me being an audience member is kind of where a lot of it came from. Me going to so many shows as a teenager, and in my early 20s, mid 20s, late 20s, early 30s .... I’ve kind of figured out what I want to see and what I don’t particularly care to see. And I kind of stay there.
It’s never my intention to go out and try to be funny. It just kind of happens that way.
Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. Saturday, March 6
Tickets: $20 advance, $23 day of show
Delete - Merge UArtist’s Web site: www.kellerwilliams.net