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 (which he probably was in a past life, if you believe in reincarnation). His ability to craft timely tunes based on his experiences on the road and/or whatever is happening in the present moment make him one of today’s most attuned songsmiths, as clearly evidenced on his 2009 release Odd. Songs like “Spartan Darn It” and “Doobie in My Pocket” demonstrate a personable vibe that makes it seem like Williams is one of your own circle of friends, rather than some distant celebrity.
Antone’s Nightclub is completely jammed on this Saturday night, suggesting that Williams’ star is still rising and that he’s ready to move up to a larger venue in Austin. The modern-day troubadour first started gaining national recognition as a solo acoustic opening act for the String Cheese Incident in the late ’90s and built his reputation higher during occasional and always memorable performances with the band backing him, billed as The Keller Williams Incident. Williams went on to start touring as a one-man band, accompanying himself in impressive fashion by looping bass and drum samples that he would create on stage and then play over. In 2008, he put together his own quartet and toured as Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll & Sipe, but on this tour he’s back to the one-man band. Fans can debate whether they like him better alone or with a full band behind him, but there’s no doubt that it takes an immense talent for a single performer to pack a club and keep an audience’s full attention for three hours.
Williams gives an early nod to his unabashed hippie roots with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias”, a song that’s always well-received by the jam rock crowd. Williams soon puts his own twist on the classic by singing “Welcome to the freak show,” before announcing “Music by the Grateful Dead, words by Ani DiFranco”. He’s singing the lyrics from DiFranco’s “Freak Show” but still playing “Scarlet Begonias”, creating a fresh spin on both that fits just right. Williams goes on to demonstrate his instrumental chops by delivering some Jerry Garcia-style virtuoso lead guitar over the “Scarlet Begonias” groove. He soon has some side-to-side crowd feedback going and clearly owns the crowd.
Williams’ signature ability to mix classic tunes together is one of his most endearing charms. He does it again during his own classic “Freaker by the Speaker”, when he smoothly sings “We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy,” substituting lyrics from Seal’s “Crazy”. Another first set highlight features a reggae groove with Williams singing about parking lot romance: “I fell in love with a girl in the Port-O-Potty line at some show… She was waiting for her turn to go.” A deeply groovy vibe pervades.
The crowd is characterized to a certain degree during a short set break when the auxiliary beer station runs out of Lone Star tallboys, the Texas equivalent of Pabst Blue Ribbon and the cheapest beer at every bar in Austin. Most fans move on to Shiner Bock, another Texas brew which costs a little more but is worth it in the taste upgrade. The crowd is still catered to musically as the PA plays an album of bluegrass versions of Phish songs, with heads still nodding to the catchy instrumental takes on “Cavern” and “Wading in the Velvet Sea”.
Williams re-ignites the crowd early in the second set with a surprise cover of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”, a tune which clearly resonates as the assembled sing along on each chorus. Williams once again spins a classic tune in a different direction as he jams into The Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider”. He gets a big bass groove going to create a high-energy funky jam reminiscent of both his own “Freaker by the Speaker” and Phish’s “Weekapaug Groove”, and the whole room gets down.
Later, Williams delivers a little political improv over another groovy jam when he sings “Rush Limbaugh has the right to say all the shit he does… because of freedom of speech… I believe in peace and love, and that war is bad… Rush Limbaugh, you’re an asshole, a big old douche bag and I hope you fail,” which brings much amusement amongst the assembled since Austin is a well-known liberal oasis amongst Texas conservatism. Williams scores more points when he sings “Where’s the bridge / Has anyone seen the bridge,” quoting from Led Zeppelin’s “The Crunge” to cover for the fact that he did seem to get a little lost. But ever the improvisational master, he quickly figures out where to go with the tune.
The end of the show goes back to the roots that opened it, with a superbly layered version of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street”. Williams takes the proto-jam-funk groove to a higher plane with his sensational acoustic guitar playing, elevating the rhythm to a turbo-charged level that ignites the room throughout a deliciously extended jam.
“Thank you Austin, Texas, you guys get shows seven nights a week all year long and you stayed all night long,” says Williams in appreciation toward the end of the jam as the show passes the three-hour mark. “Play your own shit” requests a fan up front, to which Williams responds with a “Play Your Own Shit” jam that leads into some lyrics about how Williams loves California, featuring observations such as “Did you know there was a weed strain called Willie Nelson, and when you put it together with Mendocino Cush, it’s called Willie Nelson Mendo Cush.” The “I love California” jam segues into an “I love Austin, Texas” jam for a triumphant conclusion. There are few towns in the USA that can compare to the Northern California vibe that Williams and so many other musicians in the jam rock scene have been so inspired by, and Austin is definitely one of them.