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Thursday, Nov 21, 2019

The one-man jam band

Keller Williams is a musician who’s greater than the sum of many parts

brunch Updated: Apr 15, 2017 21:10 IST
Sanjoy Narayan
Sanjoy Narayan
Hindustan Times
Live phrased looping is the hallmark of Keller Williams’s music
Live phrased looping is the hallmark of Keller Williams’s music(Getty Images)

There’s a good reason why Keller Williams is called the one-man jam band. Most jam bands are known for the virtuoso of each of their members, their talent and ability to improvise individualistically, but in a manner that results in an end product that invokes the Aristotelian saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Take any great jam band, including pioneers such as the Grateful Dead, and their music could be described by that phrase – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of Keller (his fans like to eschew using his second name), it’s a bit different – the sum and whole are the same. For, ever since he burst upon the music scene with his first album, Freek, in 1994, Keller has wowed his audiences with what he does: he plays multiple instruments himself and loops the live phrases to create an effect that seems as if an entire band is playing.

Live phrased looping is the hallmark of Keller Williams’s music. He does that frequently. But there are other aspects of his talent. For one, he’s not only a great musician, but also hugely prolific. This year, he released his 23rd solo album, Raw, which is an acoustic album with 10 tracks that hop, skip and jump genres. Keller is equally proficient in types that range from bluegrass to jazz and funk; and folk to reggae and rock.

Keller’s albums almost always have a single word title. And they’re as playful as his lyrics usually are. So Raw is an acoustic album; 2015’s Vape is a bit of stoner album; 2004’s brilliant double album, Stage, is a live recording; 2010’s Thief is one that features only covers of other musicians’ songs; and so on.

A self-taught musician who is equally adept on guitar, bass, percussion and keyboards, the story goes that Keller got his hands on a guitar when he was just three. That tale might be apocryphal, but if you listened to Stage (the live album referred to above) and no one told you that this was one guy up on stage playing everything you were hearing live, you’d think a full band was up there oozing oodles of talent all-round.

Fact is it was only Keller doing everything. The double-CD album is compilation of Keller’s 2003 tour and besides his own compositions, it has covers that demonstrate his versatility. Among others, there’s Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth, Van Morrison’s Moondance, the Grateful Dead’s Bird Song and Queen’s (in collaboration with David Bowie) Under Pressure. All delivered with Keller’s one-man jam band style.

His obvious instrumental talents apart, Keller has an instantly endearing vocal style and delivers in his tenor songs, especially the ones he writes himself, a playful irreverence. On 2015’s Vape, there’s one calledMantra with a hint of Indian percussion that pokes a bit of fun at the fad of meditation with a chorus that goes: “No Nag Champa, I forgot my mantra”.

Quirky lyrics, flatpicking on a customised 10-string guitar and genre-hopping makes Keller’s music a compelling listen. Whether he’s playing on his own or with bands such as purveyors of progressive bluegrass, The String Cheese Incident, or collaborating with funk, reggae or other musicians such as Indian-American guitar maestro Sanjay Mishra (on whose album, Chateau Benares, Keller has played), he’s a musician none can afford to miss. The problem is there are too many Keller Williams albums out there to choose from.

But one way to explore his music is to choose one live album (Stage may be a good choice); a studio recording (1999’s Breathe for its showcasing of genres ranging from jazz to reggae to bluegrass and folk and a blend of all of those); and this year’s Sync on which he collaborates with a band called Kwahtro and produces a studio album that is as close to a live performance as can be.

Tailpiece: When I put up a video on Facebook by Jane Lee Hooker doing their version of Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy, a friend asked in the comments section: “John’s daughter? Granddaughter?” The answer is neither. Jane Lee Hooker are an all-woman blues rock band from New York City. Five women playing the blues with a gritty, rock and roll style. They’ve one album, No B!, out and that’s totally worth checking out (Tip: listen to their version of Johnny Winter’s Mean Town Blues and another Muddy song, Champagne and Reefer). Besides, what a name for a band!

From HT Brunch, April 16, 2017

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