Innovative Keller Williams plays The German House
05:00 AM, Sep 11, 2013
If you go
What: Keller Williams.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday.
Where: German House Theater, 315 Gregory St.
Tickets: $30 the day of the show, available at Needledrop Records and the Bop Shop (neither of which has a service charge), The House of Guitars, Aarons Alley, ticketfly.com or (877) 435-9849.
Call: (585) 857-8385.
Perhaps this was Keller Williams mocking himself. But he hit the road for about 80 shows in 2009 with a bus and a trailer, each night setting up the stage as a little guitar shop.
There were fake walls, a display case stocked with packages of strings and effects pedals and music magazines and signs that read IF YOU BREAK IT YOU BUY IT and NO STAIRWAY. It drives guitar-store owners crazy when someone picks up a guitar and starts playing “Stairway to Heaven,” because every guitar customer does. And a cash register, of course, because none of this stuff is free. And hanging on the fake walls were about 20 guitars “about eight of which I played,” Williams says each with a little price tag hanging off of it, “so it had a little Minnie Pearl vibe to it.”
Sadly for guitar gearheads, when Williams plays Thursday at the German House Theater, he’ll have only three things that are actually recognizable as guitars. Which means he’s left about 27 back home in Virginia.
Nevertheless, the amazing one-man band that is Keller Williams will have plenty of other toys close at hand. And close at foot. Effects pedals and synthesizers mostly, allowing him to loop his guitar parts and vocals over each other, and create the sounds of other instruments, most noticeably percussion. And he has this thing called the chaoscillator. Break off the front half of the word chaos and you get the idea. “It’s a touch-screen synthesizer that allows you to set the scale and the temp and the key,” Keller says. “And you run your finger across the screen and ….”
“It’s like magic,” he agrees.
People like to call him a mad scientist of the guitar. Truth be told, Williams the one-man band has been spotted onstage with other musicians. He travels the jam-band circuit, so he gets onstage with bluegrass folks like String Cheese Incident at festivals and sometimes tours with The Travelin’ McCourys, or any project that involves playing the music of the Grateful Dead. “Camaraderie, harmonies,” Williams says of the pluses of playing with a band. “I could loop my vocals, but harmony is stimulating, really powerful. Hearing people sing in harmony, building a certain peak of energy and riding that peak is something I can’t do.”
At first, Williams had no choice but to forgo a band. “I was always a kid who wanted to play in a band, but I ended up making more money sitting on a stool and playing songs,” he says. Now, he does have a choice. He can afford to pay a band. “But, the solo thing is definitely where all my freedom lies,” he says.
Williams grew up in Fredericksburg, Va., and has moved around the country some over the years. He lived in Virginia Beach, Charlottesville and Steamboat Springs, Colo. And for three years he and his wife traveled non-stop in an RV, so that’s kind of a home as well. But now they’ve settled in on his wife’s family property outside of Fredericksburg, where the field corn’s coming up now. He doesn’t participate in the farming, unless you call cutting the grass farming.
“When you do what I do, it’s a very unnatural world to live in, at least from Thursday to Sunday,” he says. “I do get a little anxious when I’m not onstage for a few days, there’s a certain release I need onstage to get stuff out of my brain. I need to do these experiments onstage. Some work, some don’t.
But Williams does have a life beyond the guitar. “I’d like to think that,” he says. He likes television. Although, like any Internet-savvy soul, he watches the shows on his computer. “When kids come home from school, I like to be present in their world. We have two kids, 5 and 8, so there’s wrestling and swimming and kayaking and fort building and bouncy palaces that are really cool. People have been going into abandoned places in strip malls and put bouncy palaces in there and open them up.”
New songs, the 43-year-old Williams says, “They’re just not coming like they used to.” Maybe the family responsibilities are too deep. But the kids were around when he wrote “The Drop,” his most recent one, and he’s been playing it in concert a lot. “Me and my wife were on the beach, sitting in chairs, watching our kids getting pounded by shore breaks, digging in the sand with our feet, drinking rum out a of a water bottle and making up lyrics,” he says. “My wife often gives me writing assignments.” He set that to a blend of dub-reggae beat and “Indiecona.” That’s indie-rock and Americana, “sort of what Mumford & Sons do.”
More significantly, and insidiously, the kids contribute to what Williams calls “this melody-based thing so prevalent today. Not that I’m trying to sound like that but there’s this guy, Phillip Phillips, who I think was on American Idol.” (He won, in fact, but let’s be thankful that’s not a part of Williams’ TV interests). He has that Dave Matthews-style sound. My son doesn’t know any of the words, but he latches into those melodies. Once he starts, I start, and the next thing I know I’m singing pop songs, which is pretty strange for me.”
So music, the beach, bouncy palaces and building forts are father-son bonding opportunities for the road-eating musician. There are others. “I ask my son, ‘Wanna go to the dump?’ ” Williams says.
” ‘No.’ “
” ‘Well, you can break some bottles.’ “
” ‘OK.’ “