Keller Williams, who is most widely known as a solo looping wizard, has never shied away from being a bandleader. He found himself center stage with The String Cheese Incident during the recording of Breathe in 1999. Just three years later he formed a power trio with Dave Watts and Tye North for the mastering of Laugh. Keller notes on his website, “I named it Laugh because we laughed a lot in the studio and it fit my self-imposed, one syllable album title requirement.” Following the release the band played a random date or two including a stop in High Sierra but they never embarked on a tour. Now 20 years since the initial release Keller is dropping a new transparent red vinyl version of the record and getting the band back together. They are hitting the road for real this time. The show at Washington’s was actually the end of a series of 16 dates that started in September on the East Coast. The run ended proper the following night in Avon, Colorado. Keller is a man with so many irons in the fire it’s amazing that he’s even able to look back on his accomplishments. He is currently performing with Steve Poltz, The Hillbenders, as well as promoting solo shows and supporting the release of his new album Grit. The man is a machine to say the least.
The show was billed as an Evening with Keller Williams featuring Dave Watts and Tye North. This band is so old K-Dub didn’t even give it a proper name and by this point Keller Williams Trio has been utilized. So it is what it is. The show started just after 8 PM and the three old friends took to each other like peanut butter and jelly. They started with an improvisation that sounded akin to an orchestra tuning that quickly gave way to the harmonic plucking of “Freeker By The Speaker.” Keller has not had a proper Billboard hit but in the jam world this song went platinum decades ago. They performed Laugh in its entirety to a packed house.
The track list on Laugh are the songs that have anchored Keller’s setlists for 20 years. The cascading instrumental “Hunting Charlie” gave way to the buoyant “Alligator Alley.” Did he write this on his way to Big Cypress? I like to think so. The first of the two covers on the album was an operatic rendition of Michael Hedges’ “Spring Buds.” Hedges was an early and key influence on our hero. Keller informed us that “Bob Rules” was written about a dream the he was on The Price Is Right. In said dream he meets Rod Roddy who gives him a pair of headphones and on them he hears this… and they band proceeded to play Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall” before returning to the main theme. Dave Watts banged out the indie beat of Ani DiFranco’s “Freakshow” which featured some enthusiastic interaction with the audience. The trio again took us on a journey with the instrumental improvisation “God Is My Palm Pilot” with some throat singing from Tye North. A jazzy “Crooked” got the fans moving again followed by a quick acoustic romp about a homeless woman who got bit by a spider called “Old Lady From Carlsbad.” I felt like a junior in college again as I sang along to “Kidney In A Cooler.” Ironically back then I didn’t even know what the song was about and today I live about 45 minutes from the Little America they sailed away from in their busted ass tour van. They closed the Laugh set with the musical highlight of the record, a chunky musical improvisation, “Freeker Reprise.” The studio take was completely off the cuff and really demonstrates the chemistry that was there all those years ago.
Their second set was a mix of classic Keller and some ridiculous covers. The riff for “Breathe” emanated from the PA and the crowd let out a massive cheer. The trio nailed it before Tye started in on the distinctive bass line from Morphine’s “Buena” which was a bit of a surprise. Keller’s self-reflective “Mantra” gave us all instruction on being present and om-ing to the beat. We were treated to a pair of covers that could not have been further apart. The band went into a rocking rendition of fIREHOSE’s “Brave Captain” followed by Sheila E’s “A Love Bizarre.” Keller let us know that, “That was a Prince song!” They went deep with reggae flavored version of “More Than A. Little” followed by the anxiety-laden “Doobie In My Pocket.” They closed their second set with a tight version of Phish’s “Birds of a Feather.” The encore was a mashup straight from the mind of Keller entitled “All Along The Watchtower.” You get the idea.
For someone like Keller Williams who is a constant stream of creativity and collaboration the music is always marching forward. This show was a rare opportunity to look back at a bard and how far he has come from his days kicking around the studio in Northern Virginia with some buddies. Laugh was a milestone and a high water mark in a prolific career that continues at a breakneck pace. Happy Anniversary to Keller, Dave and Tye, I’m glad you finally made a run. It was worth the wait.