Long before you and I ever went to see our first concert and even before our parents went to see their first, live music performances appealed to a different sense. In the time of the Greek tragedies, the rise of opera and even in the fledgling years of Broadway, the patron’s vision was the equal of his auditory sense. Theatrical music was the medium through which many of the most famous musical compositions were first delivered to an audience. Even today, mind bending light enhancements offered by a fleet of highly trained professionals are par for the course at the top of the musical food chain. It makes you think, what came first, the fame or the lights? Now, a wise friend of mine once said that you can’t go home whistling the lights, and that will never change. But there is something to be said about the age-old practice of adding theatrics to music. Keller Williams, who brought his one-man act to Albany last month, has harkened back to this formula and added a thespian angle to his already dynamic musical performance. With this simple supplement, K-dub framed his music in a visually specific way, and for me, the paradigm through which I see his solo act was forever changed.
But first, The Egg- an architectural and acoustical masterpiece created in the mind of Wallace Harrison. Its one part Frank Lloyd Wright and one part Salvador Dali. From the outside it looks like an egg, cut in half lengthwise and carefully laid on short stilts, allowing the wider end to rest higher than the narrow end, creating an enclosed amphitheater with architectural flair. The inside, however, is much more complicated than the outer view would suggest.
Upon arrival, and after following a series of small signs to the underground parking lot, which is a steal at $2 per event, Laura and I followed the beards, long hair and batik dresses to the closest elevator. Unsure exactly where to get off, we refrained from choosing a floor ourselves and followed the group. Never a wise choice in hindsight, but always the only choice in the moment. We got off and quickly realized that the theater where Keller was playing was only part of what The Egg had to offer. In addition to our scene, there was a uniquely North Country element moving about these underground hallways. In the area nearby the box office, we discovered a fly fishing expo was in full swing- and just in time for spring. There were mounted fish in small convention style booths all the way around the circular hall, which helped to further blur the line between reality and hallucination for those fans of K-dub who chose to imbibe. After my trip to the will-call window, I ducked into the bathroom and was met by looks of acceptance from my musical brethren and looks of rising confusion from everyone underneath of a curved brimmed hat with such macho words as Stanley, Dewalt, and Remington emblazoned upon them. Scooting from the bathroom, I spotted Laura, grabbed her hand and, together, we left this dichotomous upstate event behind as we hurried past the outer ushers of the amphitheater proper.
The final foyer before entering the actual amphitheater secured my belief that we hippies were in a foreign place. The floors were carpeted with clean white shag, the ceilings were high and artistically complimented the sloping walls of the egg shaped building, and the lights were bright with every single bulb burning true- all atypical features for those of us accustomed to those dark and dingy clubs that are most often willing to house a mid-major jammer. Even the single bar with a line that extended 100 feet each direction into the circular entrance way was a sign that two worlds were not only colliding outside the theater, but that the amphitheater was itself colliding with the culture being brought into it.
Inside, the air felt heavy and still, a feeling unique to those theaters built to help its customers appreciate sound, not built for more customers. The total seats were surprisingly few- one level and everyone could see the expansive stage that was pushed forward into the amphitheater. So much so, if you were in the aisles that ran down the sides of the room, you were looking at a profile of the lone microphone.
That image of a lone microphone is one that I have associated with every Keller solo show that I have seen since the days of his bar gigs in Steamboat. Sure, the props have grown- his loop station has become wireless, he has his own onstage soundboard, he has added an electric guitar and bass guitar (the former with a midi set-up so he can make just about any sound known to man on the guitars strings) and he has his infamous little drum machine. Moreover, this tour he has added a couple of new instruments; two acoustic boxes with mallets for percussion solos. But, in addition to his growing army of ghost musicians, K-dub has now added a backdrop that is intended to exude specific feelings from the listener/viewer. This is not something foreign to music lovers. Remember the old-timey feeling of the Neil Young stage during the “Harvest Moon” tour? Or how about Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge set up? These backdrops were there to help you visualize the place where the music was coming from, just as the musician was seeing it. Add K-dub to this list of theatrical musicians.
The back of the stage was adorned with various guitars. Each guitar was hung on a hook that was fastened to particleboard. And each guitar had a green tag hanging form its neck. The guitars were all acoustic- although some were closer to their electric brethren than others. And there was an electric guitar as well- a double-necked guitar waiting upon its own stand in front of the assorted acoustics from throughout Keller’s life. In addition to the guitars on the wall, there were other instruments. A trombone, a trumpet, a mandolin and all of them were tagged as well. And that’s not all; countless cables and strings, still in their packages, as well as magazines and books. If these images haven’t secured for you what the set was representing, the cash register at the front of the stage solidified the guitar shop motif that Keller had successfully created.
In the past I have feared Keller’s shows as much as I have enjoyed them. For one man to fill the stage with music is asking a lot. Reliance on his looping abilities can become repetitive and downright boring. But this stage set up helped me to think about the purity of discovery, of finding a new instrument with a different sound and figuring out how that sound can change the song you are playing. Now, at his fingertips, Keller had a seemingly endless array of new toys, strings, cables and instruments. And he was running the register. My normal fear of his looping was reborn as an eager anticipation considering which of these resources he would tap into next.
And, always the paradox, Keller began this night with an un-effected, un-looped acoustic guitar. He introduced himself to this crowd of younger counter-culturists with the instrument that began his voyage so long ago. Shortly thereafter, once salutations had been made, Keller began his first loop of the night. Sticking with the acoustic, it was a simple loop with simple rhythms, but it began to bring the crowd to their feet, much to the dismay of the retiree volunteers staffing The Egg that night. They shuffled down the aisles and encouraged everyone to sit back down. Most obliged and the first battle of the night had gone to the proponents of stoicism.
Before this show, I had never heard much of Keller’s politics in his music, but with his next tune, he began telling us that Rush Limbaugh should be allowed to speak his mind. Collectively the crowd gasped, but Keller quickly let the other shoe fall with a liberal thud when the song’s theme of free speech for all was unleashed. Now the subject matter became markedly comical. Keller brought together images of taking oxycotin, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilley. Not things you would often associate. It was like seeing a politically charged Jack Black, without the blue language. “Asshole” was the worst of the song’s verbiage, and in my mind that is an image that should be associated with Rush Limbaugh. It was a droll rap, bordering on folk because of its topically charged message.
Next was another new song that was an homage to afro-beat and its originator Fela Kuti. It was energetic. It was funky, with a driving bass loop. He even included a full saxophone solo, albeit through an electric guitar, for the songs honoree. The chorus, uh verse, uh words were repetitive to make a connection to the style it was celebrating, but I feel like this point was lost on this naive, mainly white, younger crowd whose exposure to world music may be limited to the abundance of styles adapted by Mickey Hart. Still, this celebration of Fela did show me an interesting characteristic of Keller- he can play a cover or a style that is foreign to his normal set in a way that can trick your ears into believing that he has occupied its style for his whole career.
The night began to pickup steam. Next up- Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” bluegrass styled with anonymous back up vocals offered by longtime K-dub soundman extraordinaire and general mind melder, Lou Gosain, whose name has always made me think that he was made up, like the legal firm of Dewey Cheatham and Howe, but not as obvious. Next victim? David Bowie and his funky classic “Golden Years” which Keller crooned as an over the top lounge singer may have delivered it ala 1978.
The dancing crowd was beginning to outnumber the sitting audience, and you could add Keller himself to that fray of whirling and spinning, hair-flapping hippies. Yet his dancing was purposeful. He kept looking to his right where, tucked behind the stage’s props, was his wife with their older daughter. Every move Keller was making, the young girl was joyously imitating. No matter what Keller did, she followed suit. It was one of the purest displays of happiness I have ever witnessed at a live music show and it went unnoticed by nearly all of the night’s crowd, although the joy in Keller’s heart spilled out into the rest of the night’ music.
He played Hendrix like Victor Wooten. He played a circuit bent toy and slide guitar and their happy and joyful tones made the impending spring season feel that much closer. Keller is the superman of the everyman. He played piano while simultaneously spouting a stream of consciousness song about being able to speak like a bird. As the first set wore down, so did the dancers and we all soaked in a smooth, Vince Guaraldi jazz loop before set break.
The second set began with Keller taking the stage, clutching the guitar and tilting his head as if he was the original model for Picasso’s ‘Guitar Player’. His first voice-trumpet solo of the night dropped the crowd’s collective jaw and captured our senses for the second beginning of the evening. The following ebb and flow of the rest of the set served as the final ballet for aisle supremacy between The Egg’s volunteer staff and the dancing fools of Keller’s army. “Gangster of Love’ on the upright bass slowed things musically, but allowed us all to let our hair down just that much more. We were all friends by this point and the grunge –grass versions of Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana staples of 90’s radio, although intentionally absurd with their hillbilly infusions, served as a rallying cry and the aisles were ours. So were the first three rows of the venue. We were a standing crowd. A dancing crowd. A screaming at the loud parts crowd. We had broken free from our assigned seats. A23 does not define me. I am Stites and I have the horrible dancing skills that go along with that name.
Keller took advantage of the enraptured fans at his feet and quickly followed up with three word heavy originals, finishing the sequence with “Sing For My Dinner”. He wanted us not to just remember the fun covers, but to continue to hear his message and this may have well been his best shot all night. The set had picked up all the steam it could generate, so why not finish in a cloud of dust and fervor? “Birds of a Feather”, one of my least favorite Phish songs had me singing along to K-dub’s interpretation and my first known, and favorite Keller tune since, “Kidney in A Cooler” finished off a spirited set.
Keller quickly returned for an encore and, for the second time in the night, sat down at the piano. An intentionally melancholy cover of “Brokedown Palace” may have not left a dry eye in the house if we hadn’t been exposed to a Robin William’s-esque version of so many songs beforehand. Still, I was moved and amazed, once again, by Keller’s range, not only on yet another instrument, but also on yet another plain emotionally. He truly can make you laugh, make you cry, make you think and let you dance- all in the span of a few hours. We were dismissed with one final message from our pied piper. Celebrate Your Youth,” he told us. And in case that message wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own, he picked up every bell, whistle, toy and box that he hadn’t used all night to help it stick with us. It sounded like a parade in Rio de Janeiro before the lights came up and we were released from the most intricate and vast loop that Keller had created all night. And yet this loop required no special machinery. We were the loop. We were spinning, continuing to come back to the source only to be re-energized and sent back out to spin again. I can’t wait to see him again, in any facet, and once again be made to feel like I am not just in, but part of the loop.
Check out some more great photos, thanks to Laura McDaniel.