We are a community of audiophiles who understand the intrinsic value of live music to a point that we have been known to base large chunks of our free time around chasing the perfect show. And yet, how many bands that we see as the cream of the jamband scene were exposed to us through live recordings? Sure, we all had bootlegs in college, but I am sure that most of you started in high school with ‘Skeletons in The Closet’ from Columbia House just like I did. While attending a show will truly baptize you in the 360 degrees of a band’s creative experience, the live recording is usually reserved for the connoisseur. And yet, for his 912th album, Keller Williams released a live album. Why?
This question becomes even more of a quagmire when you consider the source. The live Keller experience is unparalleled. Watching him move fluidly form station to station on the stage, like watching a sculptor create something of beauty from nothing but a rock slab, is an experience that you can find countless awe-inspired recollections of in the archives of Grateful Web, Now, playing with a band of people, rather than creating all of the sounds onstage himself, he releases an album of nearly all live tracks for the first time. His ability to work and work and work the track until it is a multilayered masterpiece, as so many of his previous releases have been, is lost in this encapsulation of the art of himself mixed with that of others in the moment. And perhaps, this is the reason he has chosen to record a live album with More Than A Little.
‘Funk’ as it is so necessarily named, is a frozen chunk of time. The band may play these songs an infinite amount more, as we all hope they will, but theses versions are petrified within our hi-fi and we are lucky for it.
Keller has no problem recreating the art of others in his own unique way, and borrowing form the repertoire of Flight of the Concords, he and More Than A Jump right into ‘Funk’ with a cover of the hilariously spoken, rapped and sung ‘I Told You I Was Freaky’. Layered over bass and keys, the alliteration of the words that make it funny make it true funk as well, Even the back-up singers yelling “freaky!” at just the right times is both hilarious and musically adept. If someone who did not speak English listened to Flight of The Concords, they would just hear great funk. Keller keeps this idea alive in his rendition of their work.
The only studio track on the album, “More Than A Little’, moves away from traditional funk sound with ska backbeat and keyboard hits over a 70’s funk synthesizer. But the live show comes right back with the soft chord changes of ‘Right Here”. This isn’t the dirty funk that makes you snarl and say ‘uh..uh..uuuhhhh’ as you nod no, no, no. This is easy listening funk, and yet, Keller does not always need to challenge your ear’s ability to find the chords in order for you to find the beauty in what he is playing, this majestic song climaxes with a gospel-esque ending, only to launch right into a P-funk like cover of the Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime”. The plucky, thumping bass continues right into the next track ‘Let’s Jam’ that leads the listener to believe that the musicality of ‘Funk’ is taking the reins away from the novelty of unexpected covers. Never to be seen as predictable, Keller turns the tide with ‘Mary Jane’ So many times, I have seem Keller drop a verse or the chorus form this song into his live shows when playing solo. In stark contrast, here he not only records the song in its entirety, Keller takes a back seat allowing the rest of the band to shine; especially, the full, round bass notes.
The lead bass continues through a take on The Grateful Dead’s ‘West LA Fadeaway’ a track that breaks free from its funk influenced rock roots and lands squarely in the fusion influenced funk realm. It is staccato funk with each quarter note pounding through the speakers and the vocals doing the same. The keys run all around the steady bass line that is carved out through this song- one of the highlights of the album.
Just as it can be with live shows, the last three songs on the album have all of the energy and strength that has been established throughout the show packed into each of their well-received notes. The aside to Madonna in the opening licks of ‘I Feel Love’ gives way to the call and response verses that made me think of band leaders like Ray Charles or James Brown using the energy of what is around them to create a song out of nothing. Keller adds his own spin to this age-old art, making such serious fun of disco that it becomes its own fun disco, in a serious way. After ‘B.I.T.C.H.” the band funkifies Danny Barnes’ ‘Samson’s Wine’, a song that only needed a slight nudge and the right instrumentation to be considered funk, since its always been funky. A planned segue way into ‘Samson and Delilah’ by the Dead sounds completely impromptu, as Keller uses the melodic chords sung by the back-up singers as the conversion point making this song into a medley. Six minutes in, the jam exists within both songs and becomes its own song at the same time.
Any band’s recordings, in the studio and especially live, depend mainly on the strength of the compositions and the strength of the players. With so many live tracks on ‘Funk”, this dependence is even stronger than with any other collaborative studio albums that Keller has made. I usually write about the multitude of activities that Keller does alone. On ‘Funk’ there is a multitude of activity, but it is bringing together different people, different personalities, and different contributions. The songs that Keller normally only teases when he plays alone are fully developed in this arena, with bass lines and rhythm licks all their own, rather than the accidental refrains and choruses that he runs into when playing solo. Keller has found a genre that he feels comfortable being the maestro of many, not just the maestro of one. Listen to ‘Funk’ and you’ll hear why this all fits together like a feathered hat, fits with leopard skin trousers and a velvet coat with tails. Aw yeah.