As I ate the best sushi I had eaten in as long as I can remember, I had to keep looking over my shoulder, half expecting to see Keller Williams walk into the room. In terms of our physical proximity to one and other, it wasn’t that big of a stretch. He was playing later that night in South Burlington. But Keller and I have a connection that runs much deeper than this superficial story. Our metaphorical connection through sushi is a vein deep within the tuna that takes some expert slicing to expose, but if you’ll give me a few minutes, you will enjoy this tender slice for yourself. Five or six years ago, the last time I could remember having sushi of this quality, I ran into Keller in the restaurant. That is to say, I ignored my friend’s not so engrossing story, once I realized who was walking across the restaurant with a baby stroller. That is to say, I stood up, walked over to him and intentionally injected myself into his world, as he wrestled with the stroller, trying to get it into the elevator appreciated by all of the parents in this crowded second floor restaurant. “Hey, what’s your name?” I fumbled over a more subtle way to become his friend, as I knew he would want to be mine. “Jorge” he responded. “Well, Jorge, you play a mean guitar and aren’t too bad of a song writer either. Keep it up.” With that, I left him with his un-collapsible stroller and returned to see my other childless friends and share with them my brush with fame.
And now, five years, and 2 kids of my own later, with each bite of perfectly complimentary flavors; tempura, rice, wasabi, eels sauce and succulent fish, I am reminded of that brief encounter and am getting more excited about the show at hand.
Unfortunately, nobody thinks they need to schedule 3 hours for a sushi dinner, but we did and were punished for our dining choice and strolled into the night’s show already in progress. Waiting in a will call line moving slower than the maple sap on that below-freezing weekend made my blood begin to boil into a bitter amber. Every group that cleared the pat down opened the ballroom doors and gave me seconds of audible satisfaction as I could make out the snippets of what sounded like something from the Keller and The Keels sessions. A few minutes later, once we’d finally navigated the nicest bouncers in the world, my strained listening from the line was confirmed as Keller was just segueing from Tom Petty’s "Last Dance with Mary Jane" into Rick James’ “Mary Jane”. Ah, Keller. From the moment I first heard you, I have know that you live up to your nickname K-dub, blending song after song into your own theatrical presentation; taking the crowd where they want to be taken and where you want to lead them, simultaneously,
The venue was as crowded as I have seen the Higher Ground for a Keller Williams show in Burlington. Perhaps it is just because I am getting older, but I noticed how young the crowd was. And this was not just the pre-bearded wookies of tomorrow, with their bright, new mass-produced tie-dyed shirts and prepubescent, beardless faces. The hipsters of tomorrow were there as well. Tight t-shirts, tight jeans, wind-swept hair held in place with product and flat brimmed hats- always the flat brimmed hats. Tomorrow’s hipsters are borrowing their style form yesterday’s hip-hop kids and, all in all, I feel lost in my hiking pants and sweater. I had decided earlier in the night to nicks the ironic t-shirt under my sweater. Does that count for anything?
Keller has always been infatuated with his toys. Years ago, it was just the ability to loop his voice and guitar, assisted by his ESP-aided sound man Lou Gosain, but he has never rested in adding to his on-stage arsenal. First it was a loop-able bass, then a midi-infused guitar with every sound effect anyone would care to hear (and some you wouldn’t), then a drum machine and, finally, on this tour, he has incorporated a hand held wah wah pedal; he can bend the sound of all of the previously mentioned loops and his vocals into any note, or chord, he chooses. Perhaps my sequencing is a bit off, but the final picture is true. The electricity of a normal Keller show seemed to be amplified by this latest addition, giving the night a feeling of electronica I was surprised and delighted to hear. There was no rest for the dancing crowd and now I understood what tomorrow’s hipsters were doing here. They were being rewarded with a jam-trance style of music. Silly loops of the Grateful Dead and Tenacious D from yesteryear were bring replaced by flawless chords and tight rhythms of non-existent drums.
Keller gets away with more overt cheese than anyone has since the days of short OP shorts and tube socks on Bob Weir and hadn’t played more than a handful of songs before he replaced a city in a song with Burlington Vermont, much to the delight of the many who flung their black X-ed hands into the air. To be young again and here the name of the town I stood in from the stage and to find excitement in this gesture; opposed to the jaded cynicism I find in this commonplace effort in my old age. But when he launched the appendage he calls a guitar into the hometown hero’s “Fluffhead” and mashed it up with “Birds of a Feather” my cynicism melted away and I found myself singing right along with all of the other Phish lovers in the crowd.
The second set had more of Keller’s hippie DJ remixes, with some of his own compositions, both old and new, getting more space than they had in the first set. The classic “Floatin’ on The Freshies” always brings me to my feet as I was in Steamboat, CO on the heels of Keller and the winter that inspired him to write that song was the bar we measured every year’s snowfall against. It was harder and more rapped than I remembered, perhaps only for this crowd in Burlington; Keller is a chameleon and may play it with harmonic beauty tomorrow if the night calls for it.
No matter what, the Grateful Dead finds its way into a Keller show and tonight firmly planted itself in the second set in a stripped down version of “Brown-Eyed Women.” Keller also loves his modern contemporaries Yonder Mountain String Band and his version of “Wind’s On Fire” rivals the original in his verbatim cover. The night’s encore reminded me to hold onto the youth that I so often feel has only left me in the eyes of the beholder, and then it was over.
That night, Keller’s music had an edginess. It has always been there, in fits and spurts, but mainly stayed out of the light cast by his happy-go-lucky stage persona. But that night, when the cold of winter was still holding us tightly and maniacally, Keller seemed to be playing the music of this frantic time of year. There was angst, it was driven and, perhaps more than anything, it did not make me feel like laughing as much as it made me feel like dancing. I was entertained, but not by antics. The music drove the man who drove the audience and the speed with which we were driven for the majority of the night did not allow us to stop and take a look around and smell the roses. We were moving, our bodies thrusting forward in unison at the beats and rhythms prepared for us by this wizard of loop.
As Keller’s evolution as a performer continues, so does the feel of what he prepares for us on stage. Gone are the days when he relied so heavily on a variety of guitar chords and licks looped over his three part harmonies looped as well. Now, he has even introduced more to give the set a feeling of a late night deejay jam when he bends the sound of his own recorded voice and overdubs it with an electronic eeriness that, more than likely, blows the minds of those who decided that this would be a great night to take drugs.
I think back to where Keller was when I hassled him in a sushi restaurant those many years ago. Wrestling with a stroller, the last thing he wanted was to talk to a fan that was groping him with his eyes. He was a new dad and that was his world at the time. It came through in the music he was a part of back then, most particularly the “Kids” album he released. Now, he is no longer naively facing his first child. He has experienced so much of their lives through his music, that it seems he has refocused his sound on his own vision. No matter what his inspiration, I am always floored by what he can produce. It seems that this night I was equally floored by the pulsating energy, thematically woven through the night, ceaselessly reminding me of the encore’s message. We need to all celebrate and nurture our own youthful spirit to help keep it alive.