There are people who like making music, and there are people who love making music. As in every time they get on stage there’s a huge grin on their face. Every free moment they’re writing down new lyrics or fingering fresh chords on their guitar. They explore what music does for the people who hear it, how it can make others smile, wiggle their butts, or run off into a daydream. It consumes their life, because they have fun with it, whenever and wherever they can.
Keller Williams is that person. The unconventional singing/songwriting, bluegrass lovin’, jazz experimentin’, funk-infused jokester guitarist has been pressing records since 1994. He’s never broken the barrier into superstardom, but he doesn’t need to; around the festival and jam scene he’s loved for his hearty sense of humor and uncanny ability to make you listen, laugh, and groove along with his unique style of “Acoustic Dance Music” (a term he coined on his own).
Williams also has a knack for composing covers (his album THIEF is entirely composed of them), most notably from the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia’s repertoire. His love of reinventing the psychedelic rock band’s landmark music shows in two of his side projects, Grateful Grass and Grateful Gospel. On August 1 and 2, Keller will hit Garcia’s at The Capitol Theatre for a solo show in celebration of Jerry’s birthday, playing a set entirely of his tunes. Below, we chat with Williams for a taste of his dedication to his craft and a look at an upcoming project.
At what moment did you first realize that the [Grateful] Dead and Jerry Garcia’s music meant more to you than the average artist?
I guess it was long ago, really. I got into it in my late-teens and once I got into my early-twenties I was playing these little restaurants and bars and coffee shops and places where people weren’t necessarily coming to hear music. I was more or less the background music, you know, ‘the dude in the corner.’
I realized that by playing certain songs, it opens up the connection with the audience. Like-minded folks like me responded to Grateful Dead songs and I enjoyed playing them. Since people weren’t listening anyway, why not play the stuff that I enjoy?
That kind of opened up some doors in the sense of playing songs that people know. It didn’t have to necessarily be Margaritaville or Brown Eyed Girl, which was the common request at these types of places.
I guess it was early on that I realized that playing Grateful Dead covers were a lot of fun and that’s kind of the most important thing, I think, in live performing. It has to be fun; if it’s not how can you expect to entertain an audience if you are not having fun? I take having fun very very very seriously.
When it comes to Jerry Garcia’s music, what goes into choosing the songs you want to cover?
Strangely enough, it sounds weird, but these songs, they kind of choose me in the sense of ‘creeping their way’ into my brain and making it so I have to cover it in order to get it out of my mind.
It’s just kind of the ones that really touch me that I like and wouldn’t get up and leave the show to go to the bathroom during. Because some songs you’re like, ‘Oh, this is a good one to go to the bathroom,’ and I don’t play those.
For ‘Grateful Gospel,’ obviously I’m looking for the spiritual side of Grateful Dead songs, and then also just do blatantly straight up gospel songs that Jerry did, for that project. For that particular project, I’m always looking for that specific style. For example, I love Hell in a Bucket, but it’s not necessarily a gospel song unless you really rethink it to be a gospel song.
Another song that’s not gospel is ‘Valerie’ or ‘Love in the Afternoon,’ but those songs definitely are songs that I love and like to sing to myself anyway. Those are the types of songs that I would probably creep up in my mind without me searching for it.
Do you have any other upcoming projects you’re able to spill the beans on, something that’s going to get your fans excited or anything else you’re excited for yourself?
Well, I don’t know about my fans being excited, but I’m extremely excited about this new record that’s finished and it looks like it’s going to come out in October.
It’s my first instrumental record and it’s called Sans, as in ‘without,’ as in ‘without lyrics.’ It’s kind of my continuing quest on “Acoustic Dance Music” with acoustic guitar, upright bass.
With [bassist] Danton Boller?
Yes, he is on eight out of the nine tracks. And there’s some live percussion in there but there’s also a lot of groovy samples and programed drums that kind of bring the electronic side in to mess with the acoustic instruments.
Some of these songs are 20 years old that have never seen a bass line or a drum part, so it’s really fun for me to kind of resurrect the songs and give them new life. Hopefully it’s coming out in October on vinyl, and there’ll be a short small run of CDs as well and all the other normal outlets, streaming and downloads and stuff.
Is there any reason why the instrumental style is calling out to you?
I’ve always been into it, I’ve always loved instrumental music and as a solo act truly need vocals to connect. But I’ve always loved instrumental music, especially the old jazz that may take the pop songs from the day and turn them into jazz songs. Or taking a familiar melody that people are used to singing and then playing an instrument to the melody. I love that and I’ve always dug that and I’ve always had these instrumental songs, there’s usually one or two that show up on each record, but I’ve never allowed myself to go on a full record of them. I’m really excited about this one.