From Baltimore Sun:
Guitarist Keller Williams takes the bluegrass trail for his newest album
By Sam Sessa
For some shows during his current tour, guitarist Keller Williams will strip down his usual sound.Williams usually performs as a one-man, multi-instrument act, wrapped in layers of loops. He'll start on the acoustic guitar, play a chord sequence a couple of times, record it onto an effects pedal, and have the pedal play it back on loop. Then he'll pick up a bass guitar, loop a riff, beat box on top of it, toss that into the mix and keep adding until he's coated in snippets of sounds. He takes the same approach in the studio, except with overdubs instead of loops.
Williams' sold-out show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., tomorrow will be more naked. He'll play a straightforward set with bluegrass musicians Larry and Jenny Keel - no pedals or crazy effects. Williams' Saturday concert at Rams Head Live will be back to his usual solo show.Though he loves loops, Williams said they're not all-important."My show is totally rooted in guitar and vocals," he said. "That's the base of my show - singing and playing. I like to think that the loops are just the added spice in the whole recipe of what I'm doing."For some time, Williams, 35, has wanted to cut his version of a bluegrass record. He was going to invite the Keels to play a track on his forthcoming collaboration album but decided to record a separate record called Grass instead. The trio recorded the main vocals and instruments in studio."This record was mainly a document of three people sitting in a room making music together," Williams said. "It wasn't about perfection; it wasn't about making an artistic statement. It was about three friends sitting in a room playing fun music that we all love to play at the same time with microphones in front of us. What a concept."The 10 songs on Grass were nothing new - Williams said he has occasionally played them in his solo shows for a while. But he said recording them as all-out bluegrass numbers was something fresh."Bluegrass is such a cool genre," Williams said. "New songs can be learned pretty quickly, too. It's really easy to take a classic rock song and turn it into a great bluegrass song."On Grass, the trio covers both parts of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," Beck's "Loser" and a Tom Petty medley. The trio has about four sets' worth of material they cycle through live, Williams said.Besides the Grass tour dates, there have been several times in the past few years when Williams performed with nothing but a guitar and a microphone. During a string of concerts in the Northeast last month, Williams flew out of Boston in the middle of a snowstorm. Flights were changed at the last minute, and all his special-effects gear got left behind. Williams didn't mind all that much."It's good to get back to the organic roots," he said. "That's really where it started."It began in the mid-'90s, when Williams used to play pizza bars and coffeehouses.Back then, Williams could have passed for (and quite possibly was) a backwoods hippie. He often performed barefoot, with crazy long hair sometimes pulled back into a ponytail and occasionally hanging in knots and tangles. A few of his fans still miss the locks, and wonder why he lopped them off. Williams has two stories.There's the real one:"It was ready to go," Williams said. "I found that I guess my idea was to grow my hair until it reached natural length. It just stopped growing. It got to this one point, and it just stopped growing, so I found myself being annoyed on stage with little pieces going into my mouth and things like that. I was constantly pulling it back and getting it out of my way. It was just time."And the better one:"It was really good timing, too, because it actually got cut off in a freak motorcycle ... uhh ... err ... uhh ... lawnmower accident," he said. "I was cutting the lawn and ... um ... I went down to try to clean out some grass that had gotten bunched up by the ... uhh ... by the opening there - which is something you really shouldn't do when the lawnmower's moving. My hair got sucked up in there and got all cut off."Williams also promotes organic and independent artists on his radio show, Keller's Cellar. About two dozen stations broadcast the show (you can catch it locally on WTMD-FM 89.7 at 9 Wednesday nights), which is also continuously streamed on his Web site, kellerwilliams.net.In the coming months, Williams said, he plans to finish his next studio album. It's a collaborative effort, on which he put no deadline (that's a main reason it's taken three years, he admits). As of now, he's about 85 percent to 90 percent finished, he said. Guest musicians include Martin Sexton, the String Cheese Incident, Steve Kimock, Bob Weir and Charlie Hunter.Williams named the album Youth, which adds to his catalog of single-syllable album titles. He's named past records Stage, Sight, Laugh, Home, Loop, Spun and Breathe. Looking back, Williams said he should have planned better."I kind of wished, when I started doing it when I was 24, that I'd put some verbs and nouns into it and kind of had a thought about it so by the time I'm 50 I'd have a nice long sentence," Williams said. "But it didn't work out like that."
Williams mixes things up
Keller Williams is branching out
By EMILY GILMORE
AUDIO: Listen to Sounds editor Emily Gilmore's interview with Keller Williams.
Keller Williams learned a long time ago that he can't please everyone all the time, so now he's just trying to please himself.
He's still committed to the one-man jam-band act that has earned him a dedicated following across the country, but he's branched out into other endeavors.
Williams has teamed up with flatpicker Larry Keel and Larry's wife, Jenny, who plays bass, to record a bluegrass album called "GRASS." The trio also has performed a few shows together, including a set at last year's Haymaker Music Festival in Spotsylvania County.
Keller and the Keels will reprise that performance during a sold-out show at Alexandria's Birchmere tomorrow night.
But not to worry--those not quick enough to have gotten a ticket for tomorrow's performance can still hear Williams solo at the Rams Head in Baltimore on Saturday.
The James Monroe High School graduate and Stafford County resident is happy to perform closer to home and to be able to play two different kinds of shows.
The Birchmere is rare in that it's an actual listening room where the audience really pays attention to the music onstage, "so that's a real treat for us to be able to play where people are totally honing in on your every note and breath," Williams said in a phone interview this week.
The Rams Head, on the other hand, has the atmosphere of a "seatless rock 'n' roll party type of club."
Williams is more used to places like the Rams Head, but he doesn't express a preference for one or the other.
"I think having a little bit of each makes the other one so much cooler, you know?" he said. "Having all of one might be a little stale, but having a little bit of both I think really helps me out."
Williams estimates he and the Keels have played fewer than 10 shows together, so unless you're willing to travel to Connecticut or New York next month, chances are you won't get to see them together again for a while.
All three musicians have their own projects, so they are able to keep their partnership fresh by not performing together so much, Williams said.
But the 10 tracks on "Grass" offer a tidy helping of the Keller-Keels experience. The disc is available at Williams' and Larry Keel's shows, online through kellerwil liams.net or for download on iTunes or at disclog ic.com.
Peppered among original tracks are covers of such songs as Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" and a combo of Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Breakdown." It's surprising how well these songs lend themselves to bluegrassification.
"The bluegrass thing has never really been about original music," Williams said. "It's just been about playing bluegrass, and sometimes it's just classic-rock tunes done bluegrass."
Williams is a fan of the genre, but instead of listening to the traditional music, he's more inclined to convert songs he knows into bluegrass numbers, he said.
He and the Keels "are not trying to make a point of any kind," Williams said. "We're just trying to have fun and play music together."
He met Larry Keel in Fredericksburg at the Irish Brigade "in the really super-early '90s," and they have shared various bills over the years.
Williams asked both Larry and Jenny to perform on a couple of songs for a new studio album he's been working on, and Williams loved playing with the Keels so much, he said, that they decided to do a whole separate album.
"I've been wanting to do this bluegrass record for a long time, and after all kinds of ideas of different configurations and kind of putting it off for a while, I finally just got together with Larry and Jenny and made it happen," Williams said.
He performs on his own most of the time, but he enjoys playing with other people, as well, he said. Shifting his focus from time to time helps him approach his solo act with a fresh perspective.
Williams has another collaboration in the works--this time, Keith Moseley from The String Cheese Incident and Jeff Austin from Yonder Mountain String Band will join Williams during a show in Denver in April, and they will probably play a set of bluegrass-style Grateful Dead songs, which Wiliams calls Grateful Grass.
Williams admits to having "an unhealthy fascination with the Grateful Dead," and he said he's always wanted to play those songs with other musicians who share his love for the band's music.
For those who can't get out to Denver for that show, Williams said he's working on bringing Grateful Grass to the annual Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash at Sunshine Daydream Music Park in West Virginia.
Depending on how high the demand is for the trio, Williams might take Grateful Grass to different festivals, perhaps with a rotating group of musicians.
This is another project Williams is approaching "with just total fun in mind," he said.
He would never play a surprise Grateful Grass show, he said, because he knows that not everyone likes the Dead, "but the people that do and are into bluegrass I think are gonna eat it up."
Hear the interview with Keller Williams online at fredericksburg.com
To reach EMILY GILMORE:540/374-5426
Read her blog at fredericksburg.com/blogs/view?blogger_id^BENT^3D^EENT^3
WHAT: Keller Williams will perform
WHERE: Rams Head Tavern, 20 Market Place, Baltimore
WHEN: Saturday, doors open at 8:30 p.m., show starts at 10 p.m.
COST: $17.50 in advance, $19.50 day of show
WEB: ramsheadlive.com, kellerwilliams.net
TICKETS: Available online at ticketing .ramsheadlive.com
FYI: The show is for ages 18 and over. Those under 21 will be charged an additional $3 at the door.