Keller Williams is among the more ambitious solo artists in the jam community, often incorporating layers of looping guitar into his performances for the kind of on-the-spot, in-the-moment improvisation craved by fans of the genre. Yet, Williams is equally skilled as a vocalist and complementary member of several ensembles- Keller and the Keels, Grateful Grass, PettyGrass, and Grateful Gospel, among others- that allow him to indulge in covering some of his favorite music. This May, Williams will bring Grateful Gospel to the inaugural BeachLife Festival in Redondo Beach, Calif., and close out the month on the other coast with a two-night stand at Garcia’s at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, while in between touring the U.S., hitting Summer Camp, DelFest, and the Revival Music Festival on Memorial Day weekend. As we spoke, Williams was also completing the mastering on a forthcoming solo album, and projecting plans for a new Keller and the Keels record later this year.
You’ll be playing with Grateful Gospel at the BeachLife Festival the first weekend in May, and finishing the month in New York with solo shows. How do you go about deciding on your schedule, between playing headline dates and festivals?
I have a wonderful team in place. Everyone does their part, and I know my place: to show up on time at the airport, possibly with more time than I need, start the show on-time, and play the contracted amount. That’s what I do. Everything comes to me as it happens. So I’m not sure how it came about for me to be on BeachLife, but I’m very excited. I’m very excited to hang out with Stu Allen, who will be filling in for John Kadlecik. Stu’s a fantastic guitarist out of the Bay Area. And to play with that band- we don’t get to play that often- I’m excited for that. Grateful Gospel is notoriously a Sunday band. We’ve never played on any day other than Sunday. The idea was to work it into Sunday morning or early afternoon slots at festivals. A lot of festivals have legit gospel groups that play [that slot]. That’s where the idea comes from.
I’m thinking it may be a challenge to prepare to play with Grateful Gospel because you’re with them infrequently and only on Sundays.
I definitely want to sneak in a few rehearsals, especially for the singing aspect. Grateful Gospel is a big harmony-based thing focusing on the spiritual side of Jerry and the Grateful Dead. The real magic comes with the singing. To rehearse a few times is really, really important. This is a really beautiful, spiritual, uplifting thing I’m going for.
And you said Stu Allen’s filling in?
For a morning gig, we need to be there the night before or close by, at least. I don’t think we can pull that off with John’s schedule. Stu has played in the band a few times and it’s fun to change it up. John will be on the Lockn gig in Virginia.
You played with John not too long ago, correct?
I just recently hung out with him in Alaska. Did two shows where he supported, and then we’d do a third set together. It was a lot of fun. A duo, with my looping rig- it got freaky. It went places not planned. It was really interesting.
Is it a difficult to go from the solo world where you have so much control to collaborating?
(Collaborating) brings me joy, excitement, and adrenaline. After doing what I do for so long, and being limited to the powers that I have over these instruments, and then to bring in someone with more powers, and more licks, and more avenues to go down, but is also open-minded enough to play this track that I’ve just created in front of them- that makes me giddy. I get goosebumps thinking about it now. I know what people to target when it comes to that. The challenge comes when maybe I’m sitting-in with someone else’s band, and I’m worried about stepping on someone’s vibe.
You have developed such a comfort level with your solo performance, particularly incorporating looping into your approach. When you hit on something that works, that resonates, is it hard to resist the notion of trying to get to that place again the next night or the next time you jam with someone?
I don’t think can ever really re-create some kind of improv. Improv is improv. You can re-create the beat and the key and maybe the scale you’re using, but the vibe is always going to be different. Sometimes when you listen back to things that go to the places we went, they can be starting blocks for ideas for songs. But, my think recently is to write into my setlist things like, “wing it,” or “make ‘er up’er,” or “go somewhere.” It creates a space to be creative. John and I definitely did that. I have a lot of trust in him. To communicate with someone without words is a beautiful thing in music.
The Sunday lineup at BeachLife includes Willie Nelson, Ziggy Marley, Grace Potter, and Blues Traveler. Are you one to take a look and see who you are performing with at festivals?
A lot of times I don’t see lineups until I get there. Unless, of course, there is a request for sit-ins or to build a band. Like with Grateful Grass, I can look at the bill and see who would connect with this music and would want to do it. I always look at who is before and after me. I have a lot of respect for bands of the older generation. So, if I’m at a bluegrass festival in between some heroes I definitely don’t drop as many F-bombs. Other than that it is usually a pleasant surprise when I get to see bands. It’s difficult sometimes to force yourself to leave [a festival] because there is so much good music going on, but I have to stay in that professional vein and bug out which means not seeing as much as I’d like.
Grateful Gospel aside, does when you are slotted to perform play a role in comprising the set, regardless of what other artists are on the bill?
Absolutely. It’s always about the environment, too. Four in the afternoon at some festivals could be straight-up lawn chairs. The whole lawn chair crowd calls for a slightly different setlist, like lyrics with storytelling. The later sets, you want to bring the ‘up.’ You don’t want to feed the yawns. You want to bring the power, the dance, the funk, the groove, and the comedy. Every environment is different. You never know. You need to bring what the vibe that’s going on calls for.
On your website you list nearly a dozen musical configurations you participate in. How do you keep it all straight in your head? Especially when you are playing the music of other artists like the Grateful Dead or Tom Petty?
I always play on the weekends. When I know that there is something coming up I’ll start mentally preparing for that on Monday. With certain projects there is a limited amount of songs that the project knows, so I’ll focus on those. The solo thing is like the day job; I can go in and out of that all the time. I love the shows when it’s a solo set first and some kind of project second. That’s really exciting for me.
What’s exciting about it?
I get to jump into creating music and energy with other humans. When you play solo as much as I do, I get really excited about making music with other people. The real reason I do it, I think, is so I won’t stagnate in one place. And people come to the shows. And promoters book the shows. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it if people didn’t come to the shows or promoters didn’t book them. I have a deep love for this music; to release these tunes constantly going around in my head saves my mental health. It saves me from a room with pillowed walls.
There is a strong element of bluegrass in your music. Would you say that was the basis for you in developing your style?
I was a fan of the music on the acoustic side of it. That really turned me on. I think that’s where it came from. I got so absorbed with the Grateful Dead as a teenager. Then I found Michael Hedges. So there’s new age acoustic solo mixed in with all these Grateful Dead songs. I discovered Old and in the Way, and that’s kind of where me performing bluegrass came from, in my late teens, early twenties. The idea was always to play in bands; rock the drums. When that didn’t happen the solo thing came around and bluegrass fit in kind of easily. I don’t think I’d be talking to you now without the love of bluegrass. If you look at it, dance music began with a dude on stump playing a fiddle, so it’s kind of the beginning to everything.
And in Africa, there are equally separate rhythmic dance roots that originate there and migrate to New Orleans, among other places, where Bill Monroe hears jazz musicians and notices the similarity between what he’s doing and what they’re doing. This suggests the potential for a connection between bluegrass music and a lot of 20th century American rock artists that you cover, like Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead, as well.
It’s an extremely natural connection, especially with Tom Petty, and especially with the Grateful Dead. They are both rock artists, but they are also based in that Americana type of songwriting.
I look at your schedule and I see first week of May in California, last week of the month in New York, and around the U.S. at various festivals, criss-crossing the country. Do you still enjoy all that traveling?
I treat it as a gift. I play music for free. I just get paid to deal with airports, and lack of sleep, and being away from my family for three-and-a-half days a week. I used to have to go out three weeks at a time. I definitely could not do that now with my family life. This schedule is a working yin/yang for my life. mily: