PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 4, 2005

One Man Jam Band

by Jim Newsom

It’s Williams week in Norfolk. Friday night, Arkansas-born poet Miller Williams and his Grammy-winning daughter, singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, wrap up the ODU Literary Festival at the Granby Theater. The night before, Fredericksburg’s Keller Williams brings his collection of guitars and music-making devices to the NorVa for an evening filled with his distinctive picking, plucking, popping and vocalizing. For Keller, it’s a homecoming of sorts.

“I went to Virginia Wesleyan College,” he told me a couple of weeks ago. “I was there from the summer of ’88 until ’91, and I made a whole bunch of friends down there.

“There was a time when I was doing three or four nights a week just in Virginia Beach alone. I did the open mike gig at Abbey Road, and the two blocks with all the bars where everybody would just walk in the back and have one drink and then go to the next place.”

Since then, he has released ten one-word titled albums (Dance, Laugh, Breathe, Loop, etc.) while establishing a following rooted in the jam band scene with his percussive guitar style and his use of audio looping techniques, building multi-track arrangements onstage with the aid of modern digital technology. But it was local solo guitar players that caught his attention when he was growing up.

“In Fredericksburg itself, the musical influences were few, but strong,” he remembered. “The solo acoustic guys playing in the bars---I’d be on my bicycle as a teenager and stop. I couldn’t go into these places but I would just sit and listen to them.”

By the time he was in college, he was putting his own high-energy variation on the standard acoustic folksinger pose.

“It was always kind of an alternative folk music,” he said. “It wasn’t your father’s folk music! It was more in the Ani DeFranco vein, kind of a danceable folk music.”

His guitar idol was the late new age avatar, Michael Hedges, who expanded the stylistic palette first found in the virtuosic techniques of Leo Kottke. But he first fell in love with the instrument at a very young age, watching TV with his parents.

“I got a guitar when I was three, heavily due to the Hee Haw show,” he laughed. “I was a big Hee Haw fan and my mom says I was really glued to the television and demanded a guitar. So I got one then, and just kinda held it wrong and pretended to play it for many years. It was when I was about fourteen that I actually learned some chords, and I got my first gig around sixteen or seventeen.

“I wasn’t really trying to emulate anyone in particular when I started out. It was just matching up these chords with the songs on the radio. It wasn’t really any one person, just like the solo acoustic guy in the corner you’d see in restaurants. I thought that was so cool, what an easy job that was.

“Then later on in high school and college, I got turned on to Michael Hedges, and that kind of turned me over on my ass pretty much on how one guy could attack his instrument as a solo act. I got a chance to see him a few times, and all of a sudden he was my hero. Michael Hedges was the biggest influence as far as solo music goes.”

He got the idea of looping tracks to create a bigger sound from another Virginia native, Flecktone bassist Victor Wooten, who grew up in Newport News:

“Looping began, I guess, in ’97, after hours and hours of being on stage as a solo act and wanting to go further, but not being able to afford actual musicians. That year, I got to see and actually open for Victor Wooten, one of the world’s most amazing bass players. He showed me the right, correct tools to use. It’s like taking an acoustic performance and mixing it in with deejaying, but instead of using CDs or vinyl, I’m actually creating the loops onstage. Nothing is pre-recorded; everything is created live on stage.”

The musicality of this technique is well documented in last year’s double-CD set, Stage, and the excitement of his live performances is nicely captured on his new DVD, Sight. But to fully appreciate Keller Williams’ music and his effect on jam band aficionados, you have to experience him in person. You never know what you’ll hear mixed in with his own concoctions---a reconstruction of “Moondance,” a snippet of Motown, a taste of the Grateful Dead.

“I’ve written a lot of songs, done a lot of albums, but I’ve always been a music lover first, musician second, songwriter third. So the covers always play a large role in my set.”

copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.