Two decades into his career, Keller Williams still feels more like a summer tour pal that anyone can relate to, rather than a distant rock star.
Lasting two decades in the music business is a feat to which many musicians aspire, but few are able to reach. It’s a milestone achievement that Keller Williams is celebrating in 2015 with his 20th album, Vape. In some ways, it’s just another year on the “Golden Road” for the prolific singer, songwriter, and guitarist. But the two decade milestone is another leap forward in prestige and creativity for Williams, who has earned a place as one of the leading voices of the modern jam rock scene that he helped to build out.
This is evinced in part by how the mop-topped guitarist is rarely referred to by his last name, with most fans just referring to the virtuoso one-man band simply as “Keller”. This is largely due to a number of endearing songs he’s written about the scene, obviously from personal experience, making him seem more like one of your summer tour pals than some distant rock star. He’s also played with an all-star list of other luminaries in the scene, including all four surviving original members of the Grateful Dead in various projects. That feat earns “Heady points” that few can match.
“They all have a certain appreciation for the music… and will take liberties with changing keys,” Keller said of his experiences playing with members of the the Grateful Dead, which started when he toured as an opening act for Bob Weir’s Ratdog in 2001. He later toured as a member of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart’s Rhythm Devils in 2007 and played with Kreutzmann again at this year’s New Orleans Jazzfest as part of the drummer’s Voodoo Dead project. “The song structure was just a blueprint, and it would go off and go way out,” Keller said of the free ranging Voodoo Dead shows. He also celebrated the appropo 20 April, aka "4/20", release of Vape by playing a show with Phil Lesh that night at the bassist's Terrapin Crossroads club in San Rafael.
It’s been a natural progression for the charismatic and self-effacing guitarist, who saw a large number of Grateful Dead shows from 1988-92 before ramping down to focus on his own career. By 1995, he was allowing himself to see the Grateful Dead at only one stop per year. That year it was the band’s ill-fated appearance at Indiana’s Deer Creek Ampitheater, where ticketless fans broke through the lawn’s back fence during the show. This breach of etiquette led the band to cut that night’s “Fire on the Mountain” short for a harsh yet fitting segue into “Victim or the Crime”. It also led the band to cancel the next night’s show, which spurred Keller to pen his now classic anthem, “Gatecrashers Suck”.
Jerry Garcia’s untimely departure from the planet in August of 1995 left a huge hole in the American music scene. But in a Jedi-like way, that exit also wound up catalyzing the evolution of the next generation of musicians who had been influenced by Garcia and the Dead.
“It felt like there was a void that needed to be filled… Where am I going to get that energy from?” Keller recalls thinking at the time, echoing the thoughts of Deadheads and improv music fans across the nation. “I think there’s a large group of musicians from that time that felt the same way… and I think that’s what the jam band scene rose out of.”
One of the bands that saw a quantum leap in both popularity and creative evolution in the latter half of the ‘90s was Phish. Keller attended the band’s now legendary debut performance in Las Vegas in December of 1996, unaware that a jam from the show would later spark a song of his own. That song is “Donuts”, a joyous ode to the popular baked goods on Vape. For those familiar with the vocal jam from Phish’s performance of “You Enjoy Myself” at the Aladdin Theater (a show that was officially released in a limited edition box set as Vegas ‘96), the vocal jam’s main lyrical and melodic theme, “Donuts, I love donuts, go nuts I love donuts” would seem to have been directly lifted from that night’s homage to said baked goods. But Keller says it happened in a much more roundabout fashion.
“I was there at the Aladdin in ‘96 and it’s been brought to my attention since the record came out,” Keller says, noting that he recorded the song a couple years ago for Frederick’s Bakery in his home state of Virginia. “It’s something I always sang in the bakery and I never knew where it came from… but now it’s out,” Keller mused on how the jam had risen from his subconscious past into his creative present.
Some might view the title of the new album as an overly opportunistic attempt to capitalize on one of the top trends of the past year, with “vape” having been crowned word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2014. But all 20 of Keller’s albums have one word titles and in this case, Vape represents a personally appropriate acronym for the music contained on the album: “VirginiA Psychedelic Excursion”. Which is not to say that Keller isn’t a legitimate fan of the sweet leaf and the latest 21st century technology to vaporize it, as he alludes in the liner notes of the album: “It’s like taking all of my favorite songs that I’ve been playing live lately and smushing them all together. Then shoot high pressured life through them in a low pressure atmosphere. Out comes a highly concentrated music that can be heated up and inhaled through your ears,” Keller writes.
Uniquely personal acronyms make another appearance on the funky album closer with “CAVA”, an ode to Keller’s bi-coastal preference for spending time in both California and Virginia. “California was literally the Promised Land… in the ‘80s, to get music out there would had to have involved a record label,” Keller explained. “As a teenager, it was like if I could make it to California, I would reach my goal of getting [my music] out over there.” He went on to speak reverently of how his first gig in the Golden State turned out to be a special one opening for the String Cheese Incident at San Francisco’s famed Great American Music Hall, “this epic room that the Grateful Dead had played.” Such occurrences are the things of dreams come true, and evidence that talent plus tenacity and good vibes can result in magical manifestations in the jam band world.
Another highlight from the album is “Mantra”, a groovy song with an Eastern zen melodic vibe that at first listen sounds like an ode to Buddhist meditation. But as with “Donuts”, the origin of the song is not quite what it might seem. “That song is about not being able to meditate and sitting there trying to… and then its slips into bluegrass at the end,” Keller said of the dynamic tune.
As to how he puts together the ever-changing setlists for his shows, Keller says he studies what he played on his previous visit to a venue or city and uses a process of elimination from there that may or may not be influenced by the crowd. “Sometimes, requests are violent in that sense that if I don’t play it, there might be a problem… There’s definitely some improv, a lot of it coming from the loop grooves”, Keller said, referencing the samples he creates fresh each night to accompany himself with.
The year 2015 will be another busy one on the road for one of the jam genre’s hardest working musicians, with Keller interspersing his headlining dates with festivals around the country and a variety of band lineups. In addition to his solo shows, gigs will also include the bluegrass-leaning Keller and the Keels, the Dead-inspired Grateful Grass, as well as team-ups with the Travelin’ McCoureys, members of the String Cheese Incident, and with Furthur’s John Kadlecik. “Festival gigs are the best, being able to change gears and be part of something way bigger than what I can do myself… And I’m pleased to announce the Keller Trio with drummer Jeff Sipe and bassist Rob Wasserman coming at the end of the summer,” Keller said proudly of his latest project.
The trio project will surely provide yet another creative burst for a rock ‘n’ roll devotee who can’t stand still creatively. Keller remains constantly looking to try a little bit harder to push his music a little bit further.