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The one-man jam band on an endless loop

  • Keller Williams makes music that sounds like a band is backing him but he plays solo, literally
  • His fascinating talent and wacky style have made him a cult favourite of fans

Keller Williams performing in the US in 2005
Keller Williams performing in the US in 2005 (Getty)

On Mantra, a song from his 2015 album Vape, Keller Williams begins by chanting “Om" three times before launching into a song that seems, at first, to be an ode to meditation but quickly becomes a parody that depicts a man having lost his mantra and being unable to focus. It’s an uptempo song with guitar riffs reverbing and echoing as Williams in his tenor sings the words in a laidback and characteristically soothing manner that envelops the listener in a mist of well-being: Your mind will wander like it does and it will, your mind will wander like it does/ Your mind will wander like it does and it will/ No nag champa, I forgot my mantra...I forgot my mantra.

At last count, Williams had 25 albums—most of them studio recordings, a handful that are live ones, and nearly all of them what you could call “solo" efforts. But “solo" in the 49-year-old American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s lexicon means something more literal than it usually does. The incredibly prolific musician, who has been releasing albums and performing live since the mid-1990s, is a one-man band—he plays all the instruments that feature on his recordings.

Armed with a digital electronic looper, Williams creates samples of sound in real time on a 10-string guitar, and, using delays and other techniques, produces a soundscape that astonishingly seems as if he is being backed by multiple musicians. His live shows, which can be captivating, feature him alone at the microphone with his guitar while he sings and makes his unique blend of music. His is a genre-defying brand of music, which traverses styles as disparate as bluegrass, reggae, funk, rock, jazz and folk.

Williams has released records with such a high frequency that there have been years when he has recorded and released more than one full-length album. When he began his career, he collaborated with other bands, including the Colorado-based String Cheese Incident (SCI), who make music that has elements of folk, country, bluegrass and rock all wrapped up in psychedelia. Williams has often played with SCI and his style complements that band’s sound with its distinctive use of electric violins, mandolins and slide guitars, and lyrics that tell witty stories.

But Williams on his own is where it is really at. His albums are always quirky. And they unfailingly have one-word titles that attempt to describe the mood or theme of the songs on them. Such as Vape, which has swirling vapours on its cover—the songs, including Mantra, all touch subjects related to meditation, spiritual highs, and enhanced states of the mind. His first album, released in 1994, was called Freek. His subsequent albums have had titles such as Breathe, Buzz, Laugh, Dance, Odd and Spun. In 2004, when he decided to release a double album of live music, he called it Stage. And when he experimented with the piano, playing a bunch of Grateful Dead covers in 2013, he called the album that emerged from those endeavours Keys.

This summer, Williams released his 25th album, Add. It comprises nine songs, all tunes that were unrecorded till now but with vocals added to them. But it also has Williams’ version of songs by Joni Mitchell (All I Want); and the American alternative rock band fIREHOSE (Brave Captain). Williams’ interpretation of those two songs adds his wacky take on life—which he refreshingly doesn’t take too seriously—and additional verses that showcase his penchant for improvisation. On Add, he is unpredictable and innovative, experimenting with beats, sounds and samples to deliver seamless songs which can seem like aural doodles that he obviously enjoys creating, simultaneously ensuring that the listener has as much fun as he is having.

Williams’ live performances attract throngs, mostly of jam band fans who show a cult-like loyalty to his music. Like most jam bands, which follow in the tradition of early pioneers of the genre (the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, to name just two), Williams improvises spontaneously and his tunes, especially when performed live, can be extended ones that travel in unexpected directions. He is a regular at gigs on the US jam band concert circuit, sometimes jamming as a guest with other musicians (he has played with the guitar virtuoso Sanjay Mishra), but more often billed as a one-man jam band.

Even if you haven’t seen Williams live, you can get a flavour of his performances on a DVD, which he released in 2005. The footage is from a two-day concert he played in 2003 and has mainly original songs, but also covers of other bands’ tunes. Typical to form, the DVD is titled Sight.

It is a bit of a pity that Williams has remained underrated on the contemporary music scene, particularly so because he has such a massive discography. Yet his albums have a way of hooking you to his fascinating technique and process of making music. Rarely does a single musician sound as impressive as Williams does, using only his Gibson echoplex looping unit and a guitar but sounding as if he has a talented group of musicians backing him. The talent, of course, is all his own. If you have heard Williams once, chances are that you will seek out his albums and hear him a lot more thereafter.

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


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