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Keller Williams, the one-man band

Keller Williams is known for using a loop technology to play multiple instruments. His new album, 'Cell', is a collaboration with an electronic producer

Keller Williams performing at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, Louisiana, in January 2013
Keller Williams performing at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, Louisiana, in January 2013

Keller Williams is such a prolific musician, it is a shame he is so underrated. Since 1994, he has released more than 25 albums, toured and performed at hundreds of gigs, and collaborated with artists ranging from jam bands such as The String Cheese Incident to virtuoso guitarists like Sanjay Mishra. He has a cult following, mostly jam band aficionados, but is not well-known outside those circles. Yet Williams is a unique musician. He often performs and records solo, playing the guitar but also using the technique known as “live phrase looping”, using other instruments through a loop station that allows him to repeat riffs and sound like a full band.

Williams’ looping technique—with which he achieves a wide range of effects—is so organic that while listening to his albums it is easy to forget that he is playing solo. Then there is his ability to draw from a range of genres: bluegrass, folk, rock, funk, reggae, electronic dance music… everything shows up in his performances and recordings. All his records, idiosyncratically, have a one-word title. In 1994, Williams who is now 50, released his debut album, Freek. Since then, his albums have had names such as Buzz, Spun, Breathe, Loop, Laugh, Dance, Home.

It was with Breathe, in 1999, that Williams began to get a loyal following. The album, recorded with The String Cheese Incident, whose music has often been described as psychedelic progressive bluegrass, is an exceptionally well-crafted set of songs where Williams explores different genres, sometimes effortlessly moving from one style to another within the same song. Breathe became a popular album and, for many, the go-to album by Williams. Yet, it is not a quintessential Keller Williams album because it is not strictly a “solo” work.

For that, 2001’s Loop is probably the best one to explore. It is Williams on his own, sampling live and recorded riffs and accompanied by a 10-string acoustic guitar; Loop’s 13 songs are full of weird and quirky lyrics (in Kiwi And The Apricot, he sings: I am the man when it comes to/ Loving you that’s what I do/ You are the apple of my eye/ The kiwi and the apricot/ We rock all night and sleep all day/ And then we drive the other way/ I am the man when it comes to/ Loving you that’s what I do) and uptempo happy tunes. Williams’ guitar skills are exceptional and it helps that he has a pleasing tenor singing voice that is warm and fun to listen to.

Most Williams albums are accessible, never boring or too complex. Over the years, he has collaborated with musicians such as The Keels, a husband-wife duo that plays Appalachian folk music. The two albums with The Keels, Speed and Thief, showcase the ease with which he can complement traditional folk tunes. His latest album, Cell, released in December, is also a collaboration. Williams collaborates with Erothyme—the name under which the producer and electronic musician Bobby West records and performs. Cell is pure improvisation, with no pre-composed songs.

The title probably refers to the way the duo put together the album during the covid-induced lockdown. Instead of going to a studio, Williams used an app on his cellphone to record his voice and guitar riffs. He then sent this to Erothyme, who mixed, mastered, added beats and put together eight songs for the album.

Erothyme and Williams have played live sets in the past and they match each other perfectly on Cell: Williams’ offbeat genre-hopping style and Erothyme’s electronica. Some songs have obvious influences of the strange times that characterised much of 2020, such as Down To Your Mask, an emblematic commentary on life with masks, which has become the new normal for most of the world. With eight tracks, Cell is a short album—clocking a bit over 30 minutes—and that’s a pity because the perfect interaction between Williams’ guitar, vocals and Erothyme’s beats can leave you yearning for more.

But then again, Williams’ vast back catalogue—a large repertoire of albums and songs—is worth exploring. Some of the lesser-known ones are real gems. In 2013, he released Funk, an album recorded live while performing with a few other musicians at a small bar in Virginia. Intimate and funky, Funk is a Williams essential. As is Laugh (2002), with its funny, eccentric songs, such as Freeker By The Speaker, about a fan (Rave girl with a lollipop binky/ And a face full of metal/ Her eyes as wide as a truck/And somebody just floored the pedal/ Her mental clearance is high/ But the overpass is low/ She ducks her head/ And holds on tight/ When she gets through she lets go), and the instrumental track God Is My Palm Pilot, with its vocal scatting laid over a funky drum and bass rhythm, all generated through Williams’ looping.

Williams is able to collaborate with musicians from different genres with remarkable ease but he is probably at his best when he performs or records on his own, entwining his loops and samples with his guitar riffs and, often, improvising lyrics as he sings. He’s a musician who certainly deserves a bigger audience.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. @sanjoynarayan

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