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Keller Williams

(3 Feb 2012: The Belly Up Tavern — Solana Beach, CA)

The early part of a new year tends to be a lean season for live music fans, with many bands taking a little time off after New Year’s Eve festivities. But Keller Williams seems to like playing in the winter, hitting the road in February for at least the third straight year here (I caught him and also 2011 in Austin) . The multi-talented troubadour has carved out a niche as one of his generation’s premiere draws, consistently packing clubs with fans eager to party with this one man band and his vast repertoire.

But it’s not just about a party per se. Keller (his fans rarely use his last name) has become something of a touchstone spokesman for the jam rock generation, due to his savvy ability to not only speak to those fans with his own tunes, but also to mine the entire pop culture song catalog. He’s also played at almost every festival in the country and with almost all the top bands on the jamrock circuit at one point or another.

Sure you can count on him to throw a Grateful Dead song into almost every show, he is after all an avowed hippie and proud of it. But like the best jam bands, Williams’ influences extend far and wide. This enables the master craftsman to pull a variety of tricks out of his musical hat.

It’s another packed house here on Friday night at the Belly Up. There’s also a large gathering in the smoking section out back before the show, as would be expected. It’s a balmy night in Southern California, so why not tour the warmer climates in the winter?

One wouldn’t necessarily think there were a lot of Bon Jovi fans in this crowd, but “Wanted Dead or Alive” draws an instant sing-along early in the first set. It’s just one of those classic tunes that resonates with most of Gen-X and Y. Williams injects some old school classic rock cred when he segues it into the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider”, doubling the fun quotient. He also mixes it up throughout the night by going back and forth between guitar, bass, keyboards and sampler as few others can. He’ll lay down a groove, then play another part on top of that, then jam out over that. It’s a master class on how far one musician dedicated to his craft can take it.

You’ve gotta be able to write your own classics as well though and Williams can do that too of course. “Alligator Alley” is just such a tune. The funky guitar riffs and lyrics about “ignoring all the racket of conventional reality” never fail to resonate. An instrumental jam on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” brings the vibe up further before another wave of clever segues featuring “For the Love of Money” into Seal’s “Crazy”, into “She Drives Me Crazy” from the Fine Young Cannibals, into the blues classic “Crazy”. It’s a masterful way to riff out on a theme, with a variety of insanity in this case. It’s an increasingly crazy world we live in here in the early part of 2012, long looked toward as a potentially historic turning point for humanity, so the theme seems apropos.

The second set finds Williams looking back on some insanity from the mid ‘90s with his beloved hippie anthem, “Gatecrashers Suck”. The biographical song is dedicated to the lot rats that crashed the gates during the Grateful Dead’s July 2, 1995 show at the Deer Creek Ampitheater in Indiana, which led to the ultimate buzz kill when the next night’s show was then cancelled. It’s a perennial favorite, with the crowd singing along on the humorously endearing chorus of “Fuck you, you cock-sucking motherfuckers”.

This soon leads to a monster rendition of the Dead’s “Shakedown Street”, with Williams jamming out with himself on an extended arrangement of the psyche-funk classic. It’s almost hard to believe that just one musician can create a sound this big to do the song justice, but Williams succeeds here in magnificent fashion as the whole club gets down during what is probably the jam of the night. The Grateful Dead theme is strong tonight as Williams also ends the set with a special arrangement of the Dead’s “One More Saturday Night”, turning it into a “Friday night” version. He also re-arranges the song into more of a funky vamp than the straight-ahead Chuck Berry-style rock of the original tune.

It’s been a night heavy on covers and the theme continues in the encore with the Beatles’ “Drive My Car”. But Williams makes it all his own by delivering the song with a dance club beat and electronic-oriented groove that bears little musical resemblance to the original song. But taking a classic tune and re-shaping it in a fresh new way takes special talent and Williams has been demonstrating that all night long.

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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