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Jam Central Station: Keller Williams

February 9, 2019 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski

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The one man jam band. “Guitar’s mad scientist.” K-Dub. Or maybe just plain Keller. Whatever you call him, Keller Williams is one of the most unique and exciting guitar players around today. His eclectic style crosses from rock to funk to bluegrass to electronic, yet he’s able to fuse all of those influences into something that is fun, exciting, and most of all, very unique. From his solo work to his work with The String Cheese Incident, the WMDs, and many other “friends of Keller,” Keller Williams is one of the most active and diverse acts active in music today.

Williams has been playing guitar for nearly his entire life, starting out seriously when he was a teenager in Virginia. By initially playing both in a band and as a solo guitarist, he quickly built the skills necessary to not only write and play diverse styles on his acoustic guitar, but also to tie songs together in innovative ways. He recorded his first album in 1993 in Virginia with basically no fanfare and no label. Freek ended up being a very basic and raw album, primarily just Keller on his guitar.

Keller moved from Virginia to Colorado in 1995 and quickly formed a friendship with Colorado band The String Cheese Incident. SCI was already forming a fanbase at this time and touring regionally. Keller became part of the String Cheese Incident family, first by opening for the band and eventually by becoming a part of SCI Fidelity Records, String Cheese Incident’s record label. The admiration that Keller had for SCI ran so deep that he even agreed to tour with the band for free. These early shows with Keller opening for SCI helped to build his reputation as a solo performer and also helped him build his own abilities to use loops to create layered music on stage without the use of samples or pre-recorded music.

Along with the String Cheese Incident, a major influence for Keller came from Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten. Wooten was well versed in creating different sounds and effects through on-stage looping, and Keller began incorporating more of those ideas into his own work. He quickly began building up a vast array of instruments that he would use on stage, including a wide array of acoustic and electric guitars (6, 8, and 10 string varieties), basses, drums, and electronics. His style quickly moved from primarily acoustic guitar instrumentals to include the many different genres that he explores today. By the time he recorded his second album Buzz, he was already becoming adept at different styles, and by the time Spun was released, his “solo acoustic dance music” style was becoming apparent.

One of the primary turning points of Keller’s career was the release of the album Breathe. Keller recorded this entire album with the String Cheese Incident, and this album helped increase the visibility of both. Keller continued to tour both on his own and with SCI, and his popularity really began to take off. Keller followed Breathe with the live album Loop in 2001, and The Keller Williams Incident played the first Bonnaroo festival in 2002. Keller continued to be a regular performer at Bonnaroo, both as a solo artist and later with his collaborative group, the WMDs. Laugh was released in 2003, and Keller has maintained a frantic recording schedule since then, releasing material every year other than 2006, and often releasing multiple albums in a year.

Keller hasn’t been hesitant about exploring different themes in his albums, either. Dance was a remix album of Laugh, something that is not normally done in the jam band scene. Home was strongly influenced by his childhood and his hometown of Fredericksburg. He’s released a pair of bluegrass albums with friends Larry and Jenny Keel that included both original and cover songs. He then went in a much more ambitious direction with Dream, bringing in collaborators and friends on nearly every song and mixing and changing genres often. Odd showed Keller in more of a singer-songwriter mode. He spent a few years focusing on “specialty” albums, including a children’s album (Kids), an album that featured Keller playing only bass guitar in a full-band setup (Bass), another bluegrass album, this time with The Travelin’ McCoury’s (Pick), and a piano album of Grateful Dead covers (Keys). He teamed up with the funk band More Than A Little for Funk in 2013. After not releasing an album in 2014 (the first year since 2005 that he didn’t release an album) he returned with 2015’s Vape, a return-to-form solo album. Since that one, he released Sync with his KWhatro project, a completely solo album with no looping or effects entitled Raw (one of my personal favorites), and most recently an all instrumental album.

Where Keller continues to shine is in his live performances. I’ve had the opportunity to see Keller Williams almost a dozen times, and his shows are always extremely entertaining. Watching him create loops with all of the equipment he has on stage does remind me quite a bit of watching a mad scientist at work. His ability to loop different vocal and instrumental sounds to create fun music to dance to is nothing short of phenomenal. That shouldn’t take away from his guitar playing, however. He chooses to use electronics, technology, and a wide array of instruments to make his music, but he doesn’t have to. Even when he’s just playing his acoustic with nothing else, he’s a sight to behold. On stage he bounces, he dances, and he makes some of the most original and exciting music around.

My one concern or complaint about Keller would be how short his attention span is. He moves from project to project, and very rarely do those project have a real opportunity to grow. I’ve said for a long time that I’d love to see Keller put together a band and stay with the same lineup for multiple albums. However, that doesn’t seem to be in his DNA. He’s done projects with Keller Williams & Friends, The WMD’s, The Keels, The McCoury’s, and More Than A Little, but rarely sticks with anything for more than a few months at a time. His most recent project has been to expand on his “grass” themed music by teaming with the Hillbenders for a Tom Petty tour called Pettygrass. On the other hand, with such a wide variety of tastes, I can’t blame Keller for wanting to explore them all. Unfortunately that means that he doesn’t take the time to develop any one project to its full potential.

Keller is honestly not the type of artist who will probably ever make a name for himself in “popular music.” He’s too quirky, too eccentric, and he plays too many different styles. Those reasons that keep him from mainstream success, however, are the very reasons that he’s become so popular in the jam band scene. Talent and creativity are more important than fitting into a certain image or style, and talent and creativity are traits that Keller Williams possesses by the boatload. He also has a sense of humor about his work, and, by not taking himself too seriously, he allows himself to experiment with many different ideas to see what works. He tours relentlessly, records endlessly, and shows no signs of slowing down. I’d expect at least one Keller album a year for the foreseeable future, and the type of variety that allows him to hit the festival circuit every year and never become stale.

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Mountain Jam announces new location and lineup
Mountain Jam are returning to their jam roots in 2019. The festival will move from their longtime home at Hunter Mountain to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the site of the original Woodstock festival. The event will once again feature Gov’t Mule, along with Willie Nelson, The Avett Bros., The Revivalists, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Dispatch, Alison Krauss, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Twiddle, Lucas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and many other great acts.

Camp Greensky announces lineup
Camp Greensky will return for their 2nd year in Wellston, MI. The festival will again feature 3 nights of Greensky Bluegrass alongside an eclectic lineup. Other artists include Del McCoury & David Grisman doing a Del & Dawg set, Stephen Marley, Billy Strings, Hiss Golden Messenger, Circles Around the Sun, Ghost Light, Rebirth Brass Band, Bombino, and plenty of other great acts.

Widespread Panic announce dates
Widespread Panic announced a series of summer. Alongside their current dates the band will headline three nights at Red Rocks as well as three nights in St. Augustine.

Jun 28 – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO
Jun 29 – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO
Jun 30 – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO
Jul 12 – The RIDE Festival – Telluride, CO
Jul 13 – The RIDE Festival – Telluride, CO
Aug 2 – St. Augustine Amphitheatre – St. Augustine, FL
Aug 3 – St. Augustine Amphitheatre – St. Augustine, FL
Aug 4 – St. Augustine Amphitheatre – St. Augustine, FL

Ghost Light announce dates
Ghost Light continue to tour, and have another set of dates. The band has dates scheduled through May as well as some summer festival shows lined up.

March 20 – Des Moines, IA – Vaudeville Mews
March 21 – Milwaukee, WI – Colectivo
March 22 – St. Paul, MN – Turf Club
March 23 – Chicago, IL – Chop Shop
March 25 – Omaha, NE – Slowdown
March 27 – Frisco, CO – 10 Mile Music Hall
March 28 – Crested Butte, CO – Center for the Arts
March 29 – Boulder, CO – Fox Theatre
March 30 – Denver, CO – Cervantes
April 2 – Kansas City, MO – Knuckleheads
April 4 – Austin, TX – Antone’s
April 5 – Dallas, TX – Deep Ellum Art Company
April 6 – Houston, TX – Last Concert Café
April 9 – Fayetteville, AR – George’s Majestic Lounge
April 10 – St. Louis, MO – Old Rock House
April 11 – Columbus, OH – Woodlands Tavern
April 12 – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar
April 13 – Cincinnati, OH – Madison Live
April 16 – Nashville, TN – Basement East
April 17 – Asheville, NC – Asheville Music Hall
April 18 – Charleston, SC – Pour House
April 20 – Charlotte, NC – Visulite Theatre
Aprilil 27 – New Orleans, LA – Republic NOLA
May 10 – Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Bowl

jcsevents

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds Riviera Maya
February 15-17
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Phish in Riviera Maya
February 21-23
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Winter Wondergrass Colorado
February 22-24
Steamboat Springs, CO
Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Billy Strings, The California Honeydrops, Della Mae with Bonnie Paine, Jeff Austin Band, The Shook Twins

Suwannee Spring Reunion
March 21-24
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings, Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Larry Keel Experience, John Stickley Trio

Winter Wondergrass California
March 29-31
Squaw Valley, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, ALO, Fruition, Billy Strings, Jeff Austin Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s

Bender Jamboree
April 11-14
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV
Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Billy Strings

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 19-21
Centennial Olympic Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Rebelution, Moon Taxi, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Turkuaz

Domefest
May 16-18
Marvin’s Mountaintop
Masontown, WV
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong (x5), Aqueous, Litz, Mungion, Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers

DelFest
May 23-26
Cumberland, MD
The Del McCoury Band, The String Cheese Incident, The Travelin’ McCourys, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings

Summer Camp Music Festival
May 23-26
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL
moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Big Gigantic, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Trampled by Turtles, Blues Traveler, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Spafford, ALO

Dark Star Jubilee
May 24-26
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
3 nights of Dark Star Orchestra, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Dumpstaphunk, The Lil’ Smokies, Donna the Buffalo, The Nth Power

Camp Greensky
June 6-8
Wellston, MI
Greensky Bluegrass (3 nights), Del & Dawg, Stephen Marley, Billy Strings, Hiss Golden Messenger, Circles around the Sun, Ghost Light, The Rebirth Brass Band, Bombino

Bonnaroo
June 13-16
Manchester, TN
Phish, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, GRiZ, Nahko & Medicine for the People, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Jim James, Trampled By Turtles, The Wood Brothers, Shovels & Rope, The Record Company

Mountain Jam
June 13-16
Bethel Woods
Bethel, NY
Willie Nelson & Family, Gov’t Mule, The Avett Brothers, The Revivalists, Twiddle, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Dispatch, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Michael Franti & Spearhead

Keller in the Caverns
June 21-23
Pelham, TN
2 Keller Williams performances as well as Pettygrass, More Than A Little, and a Grateful Gospel Brunch

Telluride Bluegrass Festival
June 20-23
Telluride, CO
Brandi Carlisle, Sam Bush Band, Jim James, Greensky Bluegrass, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon: Stories from the Living Room, Punch Brothers, Railroad Earth

Electric Forest
June 27-30
Double JJ Ranch & Resort
Rothbury, MI
3 nights of The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lettuce, The Floozies, TAUK, Spafford, Twiddle, Ghost Light, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Nth Power, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

Smoky Run Music Festival
June 28-30
Butler, OH
Gov’t Mule, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Deer Tick, Son Volt, The Travelin’ McCoury’s & Jeff Austin Band present Grateful Ball, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

moe.down
July 4-6
Snow Ridge Ski Resort
Turin, NY

High Sierra
July 4-7
Quincy, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Jim James, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Galactic, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, ALO, Marcus King Band

Ride Festival
July 12-14
Telluride, CO
Widespread Panic, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Big Something

Camp Bisco
July 18-20
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA

FloydFest 19 “Journey Home”
July 24-28
Floyd, VA
Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, The String Cheese Incident, Brandi Carlile Tyler Childers, Margo Price, Fantastic Negrito, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grace featuring Love Cannon

Peach Music Festival
July 25-28
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA
Phil Lesh & Friends, Trey Anastasio Band, The String Cheese Incident, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, moe., Greensky Bluegrass, Lotus, Lettuce, Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band, Allman Betts Band, Billy Strings

Lockn’ Festival
August 22-25
Arrington, VA

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Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!