Writers need inspiration. Second to inspiration, writers need misery; at least the writers I identify with. Hemingway, Faulkner, Ellison, and Robbins all have followed the light in to its darkest places before finding its brightness again and with them, even that resolution is not guaranteed. Misery makes for good writing. Who wants to read about Bells without hearing them Toll? You don’t want to read about the Cowgirl without reading about the Blues. And, the pun and metaphor are apropos for last Saturday’s Keller Williams show at The Higher Ground in South Burlington, VT; I have my work cut out for me if you are going to read about the Sound without the Fury.
The last two sets of Keller’s music I saw before Saturday’s were at the fall’s Life Is Good Festival under the kid’s tent. His recent Kids album and string of shows with Yo Gabba Gabba! had, once again, cast him in a different shadowless place in his career. Now, following the release of his Bass album, he has returned to the place where I have seen him grow into a superstar of the touring jamband genre; standing between a soundboard, an electronic drum pad, a microphone and a guitar and bass anchored to thin music stands, giving the impression that they are floating in the air, eagerly awaiting Keller’s musical direction.
Making our way into the venue 20 minutes before the scheduled first note, Laura and I were surprised to see as much empty floor space as people. But, it was before the lights flashed theater style to signify the impending start of the show that the room was full and Laura and I were packed in between gray hairs, teens with black X’s on their intertwined hands, and plenty of dreads.
Keller’s approach to the night’s show was different than the many of his shows I have seen in the past. The music appeared before the man did. We were all swaying to his strum-pick-thwapping before he climbed the stairs in front of the now packed room. His instrumental introduction was not hurried. The jam developed through the entire song; again, a departure from the oft-frenetic pace of a Keller show. This atypical start did not necessary have me feeling uncomfortable, instead peeking my interest. Was Keller changing his ways? Was he settling into a place where the hyperactive man-child was becoming more of a turbulent elder statesman? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; it was only one song.
But the next foray into Keller’s oft-admitted biggest influence, The Grateful Dead, with a slow approach into Scarlet Begonias, kept these questions bubbling. In Burlington, where the Dead is required listening for all public school students in the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, the song focused the crowd on the good time that Keller was going to provide us all this night. We were all being welcomed to the freak show; all at once this metaphor became real. Keller’s meandering through the jam landed him at the beginning of one of his favorite covers, Ani DiFranco’s Freak Show. I have seen Keller cover this since his club days in Steamboat and it has always been so symbolic of who he is as a player and what he wants his audience to see. We are the animals at the zoo. We are the display behind the glass. Our commitment to Keller’s message, our pied piper of freakdom, is rewarded by our comfort in these surroundings. We are welcome. But Keller, always one step ahead, returned to where he had began, making a medley of Ani and the resolution of Scarlet, with a club-funk Fire on the Mountain. The night was quickly becoming a blur of music and Keller would have it no other way.
Watching Keller play is like watching the musical notes in a silent cartoon flow form the strummed guitar while the black and white mouse girates quickly to let you know the tempo. Then the cartoon cuts to the bassist who’s pulsating belly lets you know that the low end is all he is interested in. Keller has brought reality to what these cartoons depicted all those years ago. His head slowly turns downward, hi chin coming close to his chest until his face is no longer a caricature, but his body, its movements, his hair, his jumps, his dance moves begin to show the silent symphony that is accompanying all of those looped instruments onstage. There is music beyond the wall of sound that Keller produces. He hears more it all in his head and he portrays more with his unheralded, yet incredibly important instrument; the totality of the stage.
The set continued to move forward and expand with a segue way from Bob Rules into Fiona Apple’s Criminal, complete with a speken explanation of why Criminal was in his head, as if it is an easy thing to do to understand the ramblings of a madman. Nonetheless, the existence of a candy apple red corvette with t-tops during the showcase showdown wouldn’t be complete without the writhing sound of Fiona Apple in the back seat- at least according to Keller.
If the set hadn’t hit its high point by now, it surely did when Keller then invited Mike Gordon onto stage. Now, I know that, if you have read any of my reviews of other shows from The Higher Ground, the Mike Gordon sit-in is a rite of passage for most bands that I see pass through Vermont. You may also assume that Mike must be pushing a broom in the back, always available. Maybe he is slinging drinks, or selling merch, because it does seem like he is always nearby for a couple of tunes. But tonight’s foray into Jason Mraz’s songbook (take a minute, drink that in, now back to our review) with Mike on acoustic guitar and Keller on bass was more than just a sit-in. Mike was given the reins, and not on his primary instrument. Mike, having come to the freak show before I even knew there was one, may have chosen this off-beat cover, or maybe they chose it together. Whatever the case, they had the crowd pleased, memorized and singing along- basically like a Jason Mraz concert. Inhibition was lost. Nobody was too cool to admit that they knew the words to this pop hit. You do- it’s okay. Before Mike left the stage, the duo switched to their natural instruments and, amidst some intense jazz jams, belted out Born to Be Wild before ending the set.
It was hard to maintain the focus that I had in the first set once the lights went back down again, but the damage had been done. For Keller though, it’s not damage so much as freeing. Keller allows me to free myself. I lose myself in his antics. I don’t care if I am dancing right, singing along to the deeper cuts that nobody knows. There are no deep cuts for Keller. It’s all on the surface- but note superficial. Every night is different. Sure their were staples of his career in the second set; a techno-gangster Stayin’ Alive, Freaker by The Speaker by accidental request, more Dead and the syncopated vocal humor of Boob Job, but each time you hear these songs they are almost always unique to the day. Keller is the musician for the laughing Buddha. Every night is like the first and last night of his career. It does not matter what has come before or what will come after. Only “what is” matters. His reputation does not precede him because he is constantly changing what his reputation is. He’ll play what is on his iPod, his kid’s iPod and what he heard while hitting seek on the radio and he’ll make it all work together. There’s a message in their somewhere.