Keller Williams | Higher Ground | 3/3/18

Article Contributed by Stites McDaniel | Published on Monday, March 5, 2018

In everything, balance. We aspire towards it. We lie about having it. Balance is a common tie between so many aspects of our being. Work and play, sleep and wake. Eastern, Greek and modern philosophies are steeped in it. Even a silver lining needs a touch of grey. But, why are we pre-programmed to seek balance? Why can’t we overload our individual tastes? Who says too much of everything isn’t just enough?

Keller Williams, when performing primarily solo, wrestles with this question. He defines both balance and imbalance in live music. On those occasions he is standing still, he fits neatly behind his mic stand with a diminutive physical presence. But he can’t stay still for long. He fills the space on the stage- both literally and musically. He demands all your attention to witness his creation of musical layers. His quest for sonic and visual balance is constant.

Keller Williams | Higher Ground

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I tend to do that when the music hits me from the start. And last night it did. Even before we got into to the show, I could hear the sounds of where I wanted to be, through the closed ballroom doors. It seemed that we weren’t the only ones who had waited until the last minute to make our way to the nearly sold out venue. Armed with just an acoustic guitar, Keller had already shown his recognition of rhythm from the opening lines of the first song. True, all I was able to hear were the deeper notes. But it was clear that he was strumming as if he was wielding Thor’s hammer. The sound reached me while waiting impatiently to get in, dancing in my shoes as if a child who had to pee.

Finally, we got in, just in time to hear ‘My Cadillac’, a slow and fun song on its original studio recording. There was Keller strutting around the stage. I couldn’t see his feet, but I’m assuming he was shoeless, connecting with the ground underneath of him. He walks like a funky chicken, pecking at his different set ups. A few notes on the bass. Loop it. Move on. How about some drums?” Boom clack, boom clack clack “on the drum machine. Loop it. Back to the bass. Change the bass line. Tighter. Funkier. All of this is being conveyed both through the music and the way that Keller was interacting with the crowd, gesturing theatrically to let us all into the laboratory. I was transfixed. This slow burner of a song was reimagined as a Eurodance track. The way that Keller can re-interpret a song is diabolical.

Sure, diabolical has a bit of a dark connotation, right? Do you think of Keller and think...dark? But, don’t you need darkness to truly see the light? With his mop of childlike hair and disposition to match, it often appears like there is no Mr. Hyde’s to Keller’s Dr. Jekyll-ish stage persona. Yet, from the days at the crossroads, if we’ve learned anything, we know you need a little devil in you to make rock and roll. Keller is now an established veteran on the jam scene, an institution. To see him let the audience in a bit more to understand where his music goes when the lights go out was captivating. He was showing his life story. His balance.

Keller Williams

I can’t think of a better band to cover when embracing the absence of light than Morphine. They personified cool and a “burn it down” lifestyle. Hearing the rich bassline of ‘Buena’ kept up the tour of Keller’s darkest corners. Keller played all of the parts, making the chorus stand out in a bluegrass-tronica way, executing a flawless saxophone solo on a synthesized acoustic guitar. The offbeat danceable song that Keller was hearing was on a level that was hard for those of us out of his head to fully imagine.

It’s hard to imagine, maybe even comprehend, the never-ending dance party that is going on in Keller’s mind. His technique in standalone originals is powerful. But the truest window into his chaotic yet clear psyche comes into view through is his comfort with a countless number of cover songs, finding the verses and rhythms that can bring them together in seamless mashed up medleys of dance. Keller showed off this skill bouncing back and forth between Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, with an offbeat rhythm that was a comfortable challenge for how I would normally hear that song interpreted, and Cee-Lo’s solo and often censored chart topper ‘Fuck You’ as a sing along. Guess what line Keller enjoyed hearing the crowd belt out time and time again?  

Was Keller leading us from his darkness into his dissidence? Was this set becoming an allegory for Keller himself? Is the darkness leading him to insanity to a general disdain for all he has become? Or is Keller just rockin’ the fuck out with an emphatic comfort for where he is?

So much energy was coming from and being given to one performer on stage. But even Keller needs to find some interpretation of balance. In his set design Changing the sets direction and leaving this trio of covers behind, he broke only long enough to bring Pappy Biondo, banjo maestro from Cabinet, on stage dropping into ‘Floatin On the Freshies>Alligator Alley>My Grass Is Blue.’ Pappy played the banjo with no chains to its expected place on stage, based on the history of the instrument. He abandoned typical bluegrass banjo phrasing for more psychedelic layering and effects to add an amazing amount of texture to already complex songs. Showing his true appreciation of Keller’s music, Pappy not only offered tasty solos and musical shrouding with his banjo, but he hit all the changes, played along on all the telltale riffs and even harmonized on choruses. Seeing one player who knows the music of another, really knows the songs key changes, vocals and rhythms shows how much of a respected composer Keller has become in the jamband pantheon.

Keller Williams

It wasn’t because of the vodka. I stopped drinking at dinner. Still, the entire second set is a bit of a blur. It was musical intoxication. No, more like hypnosis. I couldn’t remember more than bits and pieces once Keller broke the spell. I know Keller unassumingly returned to the stage and continued to play with the crowd. Big facial expressions. Larger than life. Back to his bread and butter. One man, an acoustic guitar and...if you believe that I’ve got some oceanfront Vermont property to sell you. I feel ashamed that this review has gone on so far without even mentioning the name of Lou Gosain. For without him, none of this would be possible. High praise, yes, but listen. Keller loops a lot of things. If you don’t know that and more importantly appreciate its place in what Keller creates, than why have you read this far? But when you are hearing tight harmonies and Keller is alone on stage, we all need to appreciate that the Robin to his Batman is in the back of the room, running sound with his hands, eyes and mind- but singing his heart out. It always catches me off guard seeing Keller solo and walking by the soundboard. Without fail, I always jump when hearing Lou sing precise Harmonies to Keller’s chaotic and constantly changed choruses. Lou is always right with him.

I do remember a few other things from the second set and will present them in neither chronological order, nor by order of importance; not because I dismiss these earthly confines of music categorization. No, today I rebel against convention because after scribbling nonsense into my notebook in the dark for most of the night, I succumbed to technology and started taking notes on my phone. I was that guy, face backlit as I stared down at a time vacuum, instead of forward towards the now. Taking notes in two places also complicated time in retrospect. I don’t know when things happened from here till the encore. But, don’t you remember? Blame it on the musical hypnosis.

I clearly remember the set did start with Laura hearing, buried in the acoustic ramblings of Keller when he walked on the stage, the underlying rhythm of ‘Kidney In a Cooler.’ After that, I definitely remember 'Scarlet Begonias>The Wedge>Scarlet Begonias’ rang true for the Deadheads who are also loyal Phish loving Vermonters.

An even more vivid memory, which sounds ridiculous talking about something that happened less than 12 hours ago, was when Keller called for a bassist and guitarist and Mihali Savoulidis and Zdenek Gubb from Twiddle took the stage.

I am steeped in Twiddle challenge. Having seen them more 8 years ago than I’ve seen them in the eight years since, I can’t judge what they are doing as a band based on what they did last night. But Gubb’s funk-metal basslines and Savoulidis’ symphonic acoustic solos solidified that it can’t be another 8 years before I give these guys another listen. Coming from a band that has made such inroads over the past several years, securing bigger and bigger headlining gigs, consequently sharing their music with an ever growing fanbase, these two still young men took the stage, and their fanboy like reactions came through. Like Pappy had before, they knew all of the rhythm changes and most of the key changes of the beautiful Keller original they played. It made me think of hearing Keller play ‘Best Feeling’ with his original backing band for the song, The String Cheese Incident. I don’t take lightly to putting the relative newcomers of Twiddle on the same level as SCI, and whether or not you a fan of Twiddle or SCI is not the issue. What I was witnessing was the quality musicianship, connection with the material and a general honor for Keller being displayed by these two fresh players.

Keller finished the set as he should-by himself asking us to keep on dancing, allowing him to orchestrate the sound that rattled around his head until it began to rattle around ours instead. A rousing encore of ‘Man Smart/ Women Smarter’ brought the guests back to the stage for a sloppy and funny and energetic and fitting end to the show. It was not just another night in South Burlington.

How can a single being, the antithesis of balance, create something that appears to have just that? Well I guess that’s the trick. Sure, Keller hams it up on stage. He has too. He can’t live in the dark places that his music can go. I’m not suggesting that Keller’s records played backwards give bluegrass takes on the process by which you sacrifice a goat. I mean that Keller doesn’t want to be taken seriously all the time. Where is the fun in that? Keller wants you to balance what you see with what you hear. Audibly he balances the dark and the light. Because what you hear is a jamband, with a capital band. He is one and he is everyone. He plays nine instruments at a time. Don’t just watch the pageantry. Listen to the magic. Balance.