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Keller Williams

(22 Jan 2011: Antone's — Austin, TX)

The worst economic conditions since the Great Depression are affecting a lot of people’s wallets these days, such as how much they can spend on luxuries like live entertainment. But you wouldn’t know it from the crowd that’s here to see one-man band Keller Williams. Antone’s is jammed just like it was when Keller was here last year.


Fans are definitely on a first name basis with the modern-day improvisational troubadour. His laid-back vibe and amicable demeanor make him seem more like just another music fan than any kind of rock star. Maybe it’s because that’s what he is, having hit the road in his younger days to see quite a few Grateful Dead shows. He’s always referred to in conversation as just “Keller”. There also seems to be a strong democratic consensus about him amongst the jam-rock community. Deadheads, Phishheads, Spreadheads, Cheeseheads – they might tend to argue amongst themselves about which band reigns supreme, but they all seem to love Keller, who has become an icon of the scene.


Patterson Hood’s “Uncle Disney” from the Thief album of eclectic covers that Keller & the Keels issued last year gets the good vibes going early with some groovy acoustic picking and an upbeat vibe. Another early highlight occurs when Keller displays his patented lyrical improvisation, where he conjures up a song based on some quirky news event or personal experience on the road. Here he takes the Kings of Leon’s well-documented misfortune with some pigeons last summer and offers up some great musical satire.


“Shit on the Kings and you’ll get a short show / It’s kind of hard to play when being shit on / The Kings took the stage, only to leave after three songs / You can’t shit on the Kings or you’ll get a short show,” sings Keller as the crowd chuckles in delight.


Keller is also a master of re-arranging classic tunes to create his own unique arrangements. He strikes gold here with an up-tempo version of the Grateful Dead’s “High Time”, one of the slowest songs in the band’s vast repertoire. Jerry Garcia’s version had more of a melancholy vibe, but Keller transforms it into a party tune. He plays a bass line, samples it, and then jams over it on guitar as he will do throughout the evening. There’s few in the music business who can entertain a crowd all by themselves for three hours, but Keller has made an art form of the one-man band concept.


Another improv tune finds Keller singing, “For every super hot girl in the front row, there’s a super insecure dude standing behind her.” More chuckles from the crowd as Keller continues to groove out. Keller gets down on the bass on another hot jam when he calls out to “all the funky bass people”, which seems to be most of the crowd. Keller slaps and pops on the bass just as skillfully as he picks on the guitar, so it’s great to watch him do both. Keller’s own classic tune “Freaker By the Speaker”, which features a signature whistling section that draws the crowd into the infectious groove, raises the energy to a new peak. It’s full-on party time now.


A short set-break takes place during which many stream outside for some fresh air and/or a smoke. It’s almost impossible not to run into someone you know outside, even if you don’t know that many people in town. The same faces tend to gravitate to the majority of the jam rock shows in any major music town, which fosters a kind local scene.


The good vibes keep flowing in the second set, such as when Keller scores with the growing fan favorite, “Doobie in my Pocket”. It’s a song about a dilemma that occurred when Keller was waiting in an airport security line and remembered there was a joint in his shirt pocket in his luggage that a fan had given him. Or is that where he put it? The line is also really long, so he doesn’t want to get out of it. The song is classic Keller, tapping into the zeitgeist of both the niche jamband scene and of mainstream modern day American paranoia. It’s one of those tunes that always brings a smile to everyone’s face. It also has an infectious groove that always gets the dance floor moving.


A triumphant cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Help on the Way” lights a fuse for another smoking jam that has everyone getting down. The lyrics to the 1975 classic only grow more and more meaningful with the ongoing decline of the global economy, so the song strikes as much of a chord now as ever – “Tell me the cost / I can pay / Let me go / Tell me love is not lost / Sell everything / Without love, day to day / Insanity is king.” Keller gets a deep groove going before winding his way through the song’s labyrinthine changes, all much to the delight of the enraptured audience.


A lively rendition of Tom Petty’s “Last Dance for Mary Jane” scores as well, with Keller developing a sweet dance groove before segueing into a bluesier coda on Petty’s “Breakdown”. The set closes with a big finish in the form of Keller’s seminal “Best Feeling”, which became a repertoire staple for the String Cheese Incident (and which was featured in several Keller Williams Incidents). The jam rock classic has the type of deep groove and uplifting lyrics that make for a perennial favorite.


It’s been a great night but the fun’s not quite over yet as Keller returns to encore with his own funky take on the ubiquitous hit of the moment, C-Lo Green’s “Fuck You”. Mix the amusing lyrics with Keller’s ability to transform almost any tune into another groovy jam, and you’ve got a great encore. The audience then dissolves out into the Austin night in a most excellent mood, where further libations await.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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Like the best jam bands, Keller's influences extend far and wide. This enables the master craftsman to pull a variety of tricks out of his musical hat.
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If Keller Williams had lived in medieval times, there's no doubt he would have been one of the most in-demand troubadours of the age.
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