Being a Keller Williams fan means being ready for anything—trying to guess where this omnivorous artist will head next might be fun but chances are good you won’t even come close. In the past three years alone Williams has recorded an album of eclectic cover tunes with the Keels (Thief), a children’s record (Kids), the bass-centric and appropriately titled Bass, a bluegrass set with the Travelin’ McCourys (Pick) and a Grateful Dead tribute project on which he played piano exclusively (Keys). Add to that a hectic touring schedule that might find him playing with the McCourys, the Keels, with his newest outfit More Than A Little or—as he’s done for years—as a solo one-man-band. See a complete fall tour itinerary below, including his just announced a 3-night New Year’s Eve run that launches on December 27th at Mr. Smalls in Millvale, PA, hits Beachland Ballroom & Tavern in Cleveland, OH on December 28th, and wraps up on December 31 at Baltimore’s Rams Head Live with sets by Keller solo, Keller Williams with More Than A Little, and Keller and the Keels.
This fall’s surprise is Funk (self-released / November 12, 2013), which—you guessed it—is all about the genre that, says Williams, “is prominent in my love of music. Funk,” he says, “would be impossible for me to get away from. It’s like breathing; it just happens naturally without me thinking about it.”
Funk was recorded live at a pair of Virginia gigs (from the Norva in Norfolk and the National in Richmond), and during a show at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Neighborhood Theatre. More Than A Little features Keller Williams on vocals and guitar, EJ Shaw on bass, Gerard Johnson playing keyboards and Toby Fairchild on drums, with backup vocals from Tonya Lazenby Jackson and Sugah Davis. The album consists of four new Williams originals and several interpretations of songs that further the vision of this artist who makes everything he touches his own. The album, writes Keller in Funk’s liner notes, “is more than a little soulful, more than a little funky and it’s making me more than a little happy.” Guaranteed, it’ll make you more than a little happy too.
Keller Williams grew up amidst the vital gospel and R&B scene in Richmond, Virginia, where the funk sounds of George Clinton with Parliament/Funkadelic, Rick James, Prince and Bootsy Collins had a profound influence on him. “The first time I was really immersed in the funk was in eighth grade, when I saw the James Monroe High School Band perform,” he says. “For me funk is all about the beat matched up with the bassline, the groove, the feel, the pocket, the soul. No one can tell you it’s funky,” he adds. “You just have to know it and feel it.”
And feel it you will. Funk gets off to a blazing start with Keller and MTAL’s workup of “I Told You I Was Freaky,” the title song of the second studio album by New Zealand’s music/comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. It’s a totally left-field choice for the funky treatment, which—in Keller World—makes it the perfect choice. “Playing covers by folks like Flight of the Conchords is nothing but pure fun for me,” he says. “I’m not afraid of anything freaky. And opening the CD with it hopefully lets listeners know that they are in for a strange ride.”
That strange but groovelicious ride continues with the first two original compositions on the album, “More Than A Little” and “Right Here.” Both are every bit as funky as the classics that long ago seeped into Williams’ sponge-like brain. Next up is a killer take on Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” This one, says Keller, “has stayed with me ever since I saw it executed perfectly in the Talking Heads’ movie Stop Making Sense. You can slow it down and put some ass in it and white people start dancing. Or play it straight like the original and people love it just the same.” The track spotlights MTAL’s Jackson and Davis (“It’s all about the backup singers,” Williams says).
The next original, the self-explanatory “Let’s Jam,” leads up to a trio of covers that couldn’t come from more diverse sources, but which equally demonstrate the breadth of funk in the hands (and feet) of Keller Williams with More Than A Little. First is “Mary Jane,” written and recorded by the legendary Rick James, a funkmeister for the ages if ever there was one. “I’ve always wanted to be Rick James,” Keller says. “This was a tune that everyone in the band knew and we nailed it from the start without rehearsal. It really showcases the ladies. I like showcasing the ladies, and I think I’m not alone.” Following “Mary Jane” is “West L.A. Fadeaway,” Williams’ latest foray into the Grateful Dead songbook. The Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter composition is given a deep and powerful reading by the sextet. “It’s no secret I have (what my wife calls) an unhealthy fascination with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead,” says Williams. But his health risk is our gain as he and the band rip through this one with abandon.
Next up is what may be the greatest surprise on an album full of them: “I Feel Love,” a huge hit for disco diva Donna Summer in 1977. Stripped of the stigma that many rock fans attached to disco at the time, the song reveals itself as fired-up funk of the first order. “I really started to take notice of Donna Summer after she died,” says Keller. “‘I Feel Love’ is so trippy and psychedelic. I was able to absorb the upbeat vibe of disco and utilize the half-time drop of the dubstep formula. It’s a super positive message that is very fun to play and dance around too.”
The final Williams original, a raver titled “B.I.T.C.H.”, carries that upbeat vibe forward and drops into the closing song on Funk. The final track - a hybrid tune called “Samson’s Wine” - is a mashup of the traditional (by way of the Dead) “Samson and Delilah” and “Wine,” a tune by singer-songwriter Danny Barnes.
“I hope we are blazing new ground in the world of funk,” Williams says in summing up his latest release. “We’re funking up some of my favorite originals, and adding some interesting, familiar covers done the More Than a Little way. I’m proud to say that this band brings it. It’s no typical white boy funk that one may expect from this typical white boy,” Keller laughs.
To celebrate Funk’s release, Keller is hosting his always-over-the-top album presale contest (past contest winners have received a private house party with Keller & The Keels, a Steamboat, Colorado ski trip with Keller, and more). For Funk, it’s the “Tear the Roof off the Funker” Contest – a chance to win an all expense paid trip for two to see Keller Williams with More Than A Little in New Orleans during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Those who purchase the album before the November 12th release date will earn two entries in the contest, with one entry earned by those who purchase FUNK after release date and before January 1, 2014. For the official contest rules and other pertinent info, click here.
This fall, Keller Williams will embark on his latest multi-market tour, performing with several configurations and solo. Highlights include The Rex Benefit Concert at The Fillmore in San Francisco on December 7 with Keller solo, Grateful Grass (featuring Keller, Keith Moseley, Jeff Austin) and special guests Tim and Nicki Bluhm and a 3-night New Year’s Eve run that launches on December 27th at Mr. Smalls in Millvale, PA, hits Beachland Ballroom & Tavern in Cleveland, OH on December 28th, and culminates on December 31 at Baltimore’s Rams Head Live with sets by Keller solo, Keller Williams with More Than A Little, and Keller and the Keels. The complete list of upcoming dates is included below.
And then? Who knows? But Williams does offer a hint. “I have ideas for many projects,” he says. “I have an insane love for all things electronica. I still dig the energy created by the EDM (electronic dance music) genre when done live. My idea is ADM: acoustic dance music, with upright bass and acoustic guitar. That’s sure to make me happy, and that is my one and only goal.”
The complete list of currently confirmed Keller Williams tour dates is as follows:
Thursday, September 12 German House Rochester NY
Friday, September 13 Westcott Theater Syracuse NY
Saturday, September 14 Bearsville Theater Woodstock NY
Thursday, September 19 Abode Wichita KS
Friday, September 20 Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Columbia MO Keller Williams with The Travelin' McCourys
Saturday, September 21 Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Festival Bristol VA Keller Williams with The Travelin' McCourys
Friday, October 4 Newby's Memphis TN Keller Williams with The Travelin' McCourys
Saturday, October 5 Three Sisters Festival Chattanooga TN Keller & The Keels and Keller Williams with The Travelin' McCourys
Sunday, October 6 Avondale Brewing Co Birmingham AL Keller Williams with The Travelin' McCourys
Thursday, October 10 Putnam Den Saratoga Springs NY with Floodwood
Friday, October 11 Toad's Place New Haven CT with Floodwood
Saturday, October 12 Infinity Hall Norfolk CT with Floodwood
Friday, October 18 Magnolia Music Festival Live Oak Fl Keller Williams with The Travelin' McCourys
Saturday, October 19 Vinyl Music Hall Pensacola FL
Thursday, October 24 World Cafe Live at The Queen Wilmington DE
Friday, October 25 Pollak Theater / Monmouth University West Long Branch NJ with Jake Shimabukuro
Saturday, October 26 Paramount Theatre Huntington NY with Jake Shimabukuro
Friday, November 1 Metropolitan Morgantown VA
Saturday, November 2 V-Club Huntington WV
Friday, November 8 El Rey Theatre Los Angeles CA
Saturday, November 9 Belly Up Tavern Solana Beach CA
Thursday, November 14 The Handlebar Greenville SC
Friday, November 15 Georgia Theatre Athens GA Keller Williams with More Than A Little
Saturday, November 16 Orange Peel Asheville NC
Wednesday, November 20 The Center of Spokane Spokane WA
Thursday, November 21 Great Northern Bar & Grill Whitefish MT
Friday, November 22 Top Hat Lounge Missoula MT
Saturday, November 23 Filling Station Bozeman MT
Thursday, December 5 Arcata Theatre Arcata CA
Friday, December 6 The Catalyst Santa Cruz CA with The Mother Hips
Saturday, December 7 Filmore Rex Benefit San Francisco CA Grateful Grass Keller with Nikki & Tim Bluhm
Wednesday, December 11 - Sunday, December 15 Strings & Sol - Now Sapphire Resort Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo Keller Williams with The Travelin' McCourys
Friday, December 27 Mr. Smalls Theatre Millvale PA Keller Williams With More Than A Little
Saturday, December 28 Beachland Ballroom & Tavern Cleveland OH Keller Williams with More Than A Little
Tuesday, December 31 Ram's Head Live Baltimore MD Keller & The Keels, Keller Williams Solo, Keller Williams with More Than A Little
Saturday, January 4 - Monday, January 6 Jam Cruise 12 Miami FL Keller Williams & The Kimocks
Additional dates to be confirmed.