Keller Williams Brings the Freak and Funk to Cleveland 

Lined up along a shelf, the Keller Williams' canon forms an always-incomplete puzzle. Album titles like Bass, Kids, Dream, Laugh, Freek and plenty more mesh together, telling a tale of one man's jagged journey into, as he'll tell you, the land of the different.

Bass — that'd be the album Williams spent fleshing out his commitment to and love of the bass. (It's wonderful.) Kids: Yes, he recorded an album of children's music. On Dream, Williams teamed up with some of his musical heroes, fulfilling, you know, some of his dreams. The list, of course, goes on and on, landing on his latest outing, 2013's Funk.

This live album, cut with the members of More Than A Little, gave Williams an opportunity to dive deep into yet another stylistic departure from whatever the "norm" might be considered.

"I'm so grateful to be able to play different types of music with different folks," Williams says. "Really, the intent is to never get stuck in some kind of stagnant routine." With a hefty dose of soul — backup singers in tow — Williams' recent gigs have seen him tapping into the fundamental funk which breeds deep in his musical traditions.

A little more than a year ago, Williams found himself sitting in with a little R&B outfit in his hometown. Drummer Toby Fairchild had roped him in as part of his rotating cast of musicians. Williams liked it.

Fairchild runs with a group called More Than A Little, a soulful get-together with relentless bounds of energy. The band — E.J. Shaw on bass, Gerard Johnson on keyboards, Tonya Lazenby and Sugah Davis on backing vocals and Fairchild — has roots throughout the Richmond, Va., area. Throughout 2013, it's been fleshing out its live sound.

The less they rehearse, Williams contends, the more the spontaneity of passion comes through. And that's good news for everyone at the show.

"It's very open-minded. We really flow well together," he says.

The year of touring and the recent album bear that idea out. Often, Williams performs a set on his own — the "one-man band" reputation flashing groovily for a while — to kick off his gigs. Then, the main event begins, and the men and women of More Than A Little join him for some soulful funk rhythms.

Reflecting Williams' breadth and depth of love for music, the band has a penchant for rolling out terrific cover tunes during its sets. Early on, they performed Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," which later ended up on the album. "[That song] was a way to bridge a gap between my world and the band's world," Williams says, thinking back to how they all began coalescing.

"It's a super positive acoustic dance type of thing in the beginning that eases into a fit of super funk with flashes of soul and R&B with a nod to gospel," he continues, drawing out his description of recent shows into a shuffling litany of awesomeness. "More than likely you'll hear songs that you will know, even if you've never heard me or seen me before."

But many people have seen Keller Williams many times before. He got his start in the early 1990s playing the Virginia jam circuit, sometimes performing as K-Dub. He brought to the stage a fascinating, loop-heavy, improv-friendly brand of solo performance art. Equipped with an acoustic guitar hooked up to a Gibson Echoplex delay system, Williams' sound emulated a full band. And with that came a full-bodied representation of his spirit, his outlook on life. His 1994 debut, Freek, remains a seminal ode to chillin' out.

The journey to his latest project with More Than A Little took Williams across fields of music — bluegrass, jazz, reggae, the works. Notable collaborations include music with the Travelin' McCourys, the Kimocks, the Keels, and the String Cheese Incident.

Each iteration of Keller-infused improv and compositional work is worth checking out, as every step along the way is necessary get from Freek to Funk.

In fact, even as each album seems disparate and self-contained, the threads of similarity are numerous. Williams is a lover of music and he draws on broad networks of influences simultaneously at every milestone of his career. "It's always been there: the funk, the rhythm in my right hand," he says.

So where does all of this lead Williams as he eyes 2014 and beyond?

"I've always really dug the upright bass — the real acoustic upright bass mixed in with some super funky drums," he says, adding that the blend of acoustic and electronic is something that's drawing his interest these days.

He's still got his hands in plenty of projects ranging across the typically diverse landscape of his interests. And there's always room for new stuff.

But there's no rush and there never has been. Listen closely. Keller Williams is here to play music and revel in the creation of it all. It's a sure bet that he'll be throwing down the goods for years to come, much like the past 20.

He added Funk to his roster this year, although, of course, the funk has always been there.

More by Eric Sandy

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