Richmond, Virginia is one of those southern cities where one can ‘feel’ the history.. It’s everywhere you look.. There is Monument Avenue, with statues of the heroes -- from a Civil War that is still described by some old timers, as ‘the recent unpleasantness.’ There is the statue to the great African-American tap-dancer and performer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. One can visit the home of writer Edgar Allan Poe, or even The Museum and White House of the Confederacy. And cobblestone streets in the oldest section of the city lead to Maymont Mansion, a Gilded Era estate visited by countless tourists and schoolchildren. Maymont was the most elaborate of several elite homes in the Virginia capital that reflected the high style of those days of extreme opulence, characterized by the juxtaposition and often asymmetrical arrangements of patterns, tones and textures, along with historical and exotic styles.
The grounds of this estate were only recently deployed as a temporary concert site, given a mistake in paperwork and the necessary permitting for the original, intended location. But Maymont’s unique characteristics made it the perfect location to host a musical evening with a man who is, like the mansion and grounds upon where he performed, brimming with very similar kinds of ‘asymmetrical arrangements of patterns, tones and textures.’ And, a healthy dose of his own Virginia history is tossed in too, for good measure..
In full disclosure, I must admit to having some degree of personal history with Mr. Williams, albeit indirectly. My husband attended college with the guitarist, and introduced me to his music in the middle 1990’s, long before String Cheese Incident, looping machines, and much significant attention from the media, mainstream or otherwise. My first introduction to Keller Williams’ eclectic performances came via bike rides to the oceanfront in Virginia Beach, and his regularly-scheduled Tuesday night performances at CP Shuckers, and the occasional Saturday night show at Phil’s Grill. It was just Keller and his guitar, back in those days, often channeling his revered Michael Hedges or Jerry Garcia, and busting out David Wilcox covers, like “Boob Job.” In fact, that cover is still one of my favorites of his, to this day.
The Fredericksburg, Va. native remains a challenging performer for me to describe, to others.. One must see and hear him, to truly ‘get it,’ I think. The moniker ‘one-man-band,’ has never worked for me. Nor does calling him a singer-songwriter suffice. Keller is far more than the sum of his various musical parts. And none of those descriptors cover his splendidly-silly sense of musical humor, either.
But I needn’t have worried about any of those concerns on this night. The enthusiastic audience seemed to be full of long-time fans, who knew exactly what to expect, on this chilly evening where the recent rains still hung in the air. And the children.. They were everywhere, running and playing in the dusk – apparently heeding Keller’s call to ‘Celebrate their Youth,’ in song and attitude.
The original owners of this gloriously appointed estate were a childless couple named James Henry and Sallie May Dooley, who upon arrival into their new home and 100 acre estate in 1893, spent three decades filling it with antiques and hosting lavish parties that rivaled those of their northern wealthy counterparts. Mr. and Mrs. Dooley were the only residents ever to live in Maymont, before it became a museum after their deaths in 1925. I had a little fun imagining their ghostly reactions to the musical spectacle taking place in their very own backyard on this night.
Keller does ‘give good backyard party,’ and I should know – hosting him in my own backyard for a party back in 1997. I think there are DAT tapes of the show that are still in circulation.. If you ever run across a show labeled ‘Gina’s Party,’ that would be me. I think Keller charged us something like $150 at the time, as hard as that is to imagine. It rained that day, like on this night. Keller’s beloved ‘Blazeabago’ parked on the street out front. His dogs, Earl and Sheba spent the late afternoon bounding around my yard, stealing croquet balls as we played our own silly and contrived annual tournament of Margarita Croquet. I know I enjoyed Keller in my backyard. I’d like to think the Dooleys would have appreciated it, on this night, as well.
Jessica and David Sanchez, of Tappahannock, Virginia seemed to be enjoying this little backyard barbeque, along with their three children, twin 3 year old girls, and a seven year old boy, each sporting Technicolor hearing protection headphones in shades of red, pink and blue. These are busy people, who “almost never get to see live music anymore,” said Jessica, as she offered her twins carrot sticks and juice boxes, before the show began. “But when it’s outside like this – and it’s KELLER,” she said with a grand sweep of her hand towards the stage, “How can you – not?”
The couple regaled me with stories of past Keller shows, pre-kid, as it were. David told me he was a fan, and I believe he is. But it was Jessica who just gushed in her approval of the musician. “He doesn’t play things simply.. He makes you -- make your ears work,” she said, after thinking for a moment. Jessica, who told me that she plays her own guitar “whenever parenthood allows me the time,” marveled at Mr. Williams’ ability to make one guitar sound as she described ‘so freakin’ big.’
Later in the evening, I watched as Jessica, and her twins as they bolted thru the audience and around the grounds with obvious glee and completely connected to the music happening onstage.. At least Jessica, was.. Can’t speak for the three year olds, I’m afraid. As the parent of a four year old, I know that three year olds can be diggin’ it in one minute, and raging against it – the next. And no obvious reason need be offered to achieve such dynamic change in attitude. But ‘mommah’ was visibly happy, and we all know: If mommah’s happy, then everybody’s happy.
I was reminded of this as I read Keller’s most recent blog entry, where he describes his appreciation for Furthur’s John Kadleck’s guitar playing and how it nearly inspired him to “run through the [Hampton] Coliseum’s halls naked and then explain to the cops that it’s cool, because Elvis and Jesus were my fathers and [that] I am named after them,” Keller wrote, with his predictable sense of twisted humor.
I suspect that if Keller could achieve that, without being arrested in the process, he probably would do it.. Instead, he remained fully-clothed and performed a nice mix of old and new songs on this night, interspersed with comedy, both musically and facially-delivered to a rapt audience ranging in age from three years old – to infinity. Ok. Maybe not infinity.. But -- at least, very old..
Both Keller and our musical mom are busy parents these days, Keller having now two children. He seemed to exude a relaxed attitude, despite what is surely a heavy workload of performances, recording, and ‘being a dad.’
And if our musical mom could arrange her own child and responsibility-free musical respite, she’d do it, too. No word on how that would play with the late Mr. and Mrs. Dooley..