Stepping away from loops and effects gives Williams a chance to spotlight his raw acoustic guitar skills
Keller Williams never really needed all of those crazy loops and multi-instrumentalist antics. Williams, who’s perhaps known best for setting up cyclical grooves and patterns using an arsenal of effects pedals, playing snippets of a beat or a phrase and then making it repeat, making layers of rhythm and harmony, showcasing his versatility and dexterity, just released an album of basically solo guitar and vocals. (In typical Williams fashion, he also released another album on the same day, figuring that if catching people’s attention is a challenge, then maybe the public would take notice of the fact that he was doing double duty.)
One of the two new records, Raw, is just Williams and an acoustic guitar. Considering that Williams has basically been releasing records at a one-a-year pace, with a few minor exceptions, since 1994, doing everything from funk, to dub, to gospel to bluegrass,
it’s surprising that he hasn’t come up with the down-to-basics approach up until now. But part of his M.O. is to constantly bounce ideas off of other musicians and to document the reverberations.
Side projects and productivity are in these days. But even in a climate of astounding busy-ness, Williams stands out as a promiscuous collaborator and a restless music-maker.
“I have 23 other records, and they’re all very different and none of them are representative of just a guy and guitar,” says Williams, who spoke to me by phone from his home in Virginia recently. Williams has a steady touring schedule of hitting the road Thursday through Sunday, and heading back to be home with his wife and family for Monday through Thursday morning or so. When I spoke to him he was spending part of the afternoon making a creekside bonfire with his son, who was home sick from school, but not too sick to go out and mess around with the elements along with his dad.
Part of the logic behind the Raw record is that Williams knew he had tour dates booked with one of his guitar heroes, Leo Kottke, and Williams wanted to make sure he had material to showcase at those concerts. Williams and Kottke play Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre on Feb. 17.
“He’s one of my idols,” says Williams. “I’m just a huge fan of [Kottke’s] music, and I wanted to record an album of something representative of what folks we’re going to do in the show.”
So he delved into some of his older songs — some songs that he’d recorded in different, more elaborate settings, and he worked on some tunes specifically for Raw, coming up with a selection of songs that would work in an environment that’s somewhat more subdued than a typical show for Williams. Assembling a mix of songs that would satisfy his regular fans isn’t probably that hard, since his faithful listeners are pretty well versed in following Williams down different musical pathways.
Raw spotlights some of Williams’ pyrotechnic guitar techniques. A big fan of Michael Hedges, Williams makes use of percussive effects on the body and fretboard, he teases out harmonics from the strings, adding a singing metallic quality to the music, and he can set up rhythmic grooves that approach the instrument as if it were a drum. It’s all made more technically impressive by the fact that he can sing and rap in an equally rapid-fire manner while playing. Williams might be playing in virtuosic fashion, but he has an unhinged sense of humor that draws attention away from the chops.
“Storytelling with absurd wordplay — I think that’s my strong point,” says Williams.
“My career is just a relentless pursuit of entertaining myself.”
This is billed as the Shut The Folk Up & Listen Tour, but that doesn’t mean it will be an entirely serious affair. Williams doesn’t really do excess seriousness.
“This is music that might make you possibly laugh, make you possibly think, make you possibly forget about what is going on television, which is my goal,” he says.
Williams has something in common with artists like Ween, Tenacious D and Frank Zappa in terms of not shying away from humor and gags, even if some listeners wince when laughs get embedded in their guitar heroics and multi-instrumental feats of looping wizardry. Listen, for instance, to “Short Show,” off of Raw. It’s a comical romp — “a rock-and-roll story set to some poseur grass,” as Williams sings — about that famous piece of viral video from 2010 when the Kings of Leon were bombarded with pigeon poop from birds overhead in the lighting rig during a show in St. Louis, before walking off after three songs. “You can’t shit on the Kings and get away with it,” goes the chorus.
Another bit of crazed lyricism can be found on “Return to the Moon,” which opens with the lines “I scratched a ticket with the leg of a cricket and I got triple Jesus.” As it happens, that one is a cover of a song by the band EL VY, which features Matt Berninger from the band the National. But it fits in nicely with the general manic psychedelic mood that Williams projects.
“It’s not for everybody,” says Williams. “You can’t please everybody. There’s definitely folks who don’t take it seriously, because it’s not really to be taken seriously. And that’s kind of a beautiful thing.”
These live dates with Leo Kottke, which generally start with a set by Kottke, a few songs by the two together a short intermission and a set by Williams, have allowed Williams to step away from the pedal-stomping and knob-twiddling demands of his regular performances, and he’s enjoying the shift.
“These Leo shows have been nothing but 100 percent freeing and just very blissful for me to just not have any worry about technology,” says Williams. “Playing songs where people listen to and respond to and laugh at and laugh with. It seems like it’s so new and so fresh, I don’t want to do anything else.”
Wanna go? Leo Kottke and Keller Williams bring the Shut the Folk Up & Listen tour to the Carolina Theatre (310 South Greene St., Greensboro) on Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 — $47.50. Call 336-333-2605 or visit carolinatheatre.com for more information.