Seeker by the Speaker: Keller Williams Continues His Quest for Musical Freedom and Fun

Keller Williams wants to dance. He often does, you know, onstage while he’s playing guitar or looping fantastical melodies into a frenzied funk soup. The movement is part of the music.

Lately, Williams is wrapping that urge around his new band and infusing his material with a danceable vibe. Given the songwriter's penchant for the upbeat and groovy, it’s working out pretty well so far.

“It’s fun to get into a dance music formula, but with acoustic instruments,” Williams tells Scene. “It’s really interesting.”

For more than 20 years, Williams has been hanging around the country’s expansive jam band scene, cutting dynamic albums and making friends with some of the most inventive musicians on tour. He’s known mostly for his top-notch solo shows, where he often runs a galaxy of instruments through a phrase looper. But that’s just part of the story.

“From the beginning I’ve always wanted to play in bands with people,” Williams says. “And the solo thing went well in the beginning, so I just followed that. In the past decade or so, I’ve been able to get back to the original vision, which was making music for humans.”

Williams is on the road these days with the Keller Williams KWahtro, a dynamic outfit comprising Gibb Droll (guitar), Danton Boller (bass) and Rodney Holmes (drums). The band started as trio a little while ago, and soon grew to this current lineup. (“It starts with me as a fan — with me admiring from afar these musicians and getting to actually play with them,” Williams says.)

Based on the time they’ve spent touring so far, there seems to be a clear sense of fun and chemistry among the four musicians. The opportunity to play with guys on that level also allows Williams to root around his impressive catalog for pieces he’d like to dust off and rearrange.

“We can go out and improv a whole show, but there are so many songs that I want to play with these amazing players and their minds and their prowess,” Williams says. “I want to utilize some of my arrangements, and sometimes that takes a lot of rehearsal.”

Last year Williams dropped Vape, his 20th album. There’s less of a clear hook with this one. (In the past, Williams has dropped albums centered around motifs, in a sense: bass, bluegrass, children’s music, etc.) It’s a smoky album, though, rife with Williams’ touchstone willingness to explore the obscure corners of melodies. “Mantra,” for example, is a splendid, airy meditation on the practice of zazen, which features woodwind and strings criss-crossing like playful birds in the sky.

The KWahtro is certainly flexing some of those newer tunes, but there’s also a strong desire to check out more distant corners of Williams’ canon.

“Newer tunes evolve on their own, naturally,” Williams says. “I am taking some of the older tunes that haven’t really made the rotation in my live set. I’m kind of conducting more of a dance music formula — not so much in the repetitious realm, but just in the overall formula of the buildups and the drops and the releases and the disco that drops into halftime. Things like that. I’ve just been listening to dance music for so long, and it just seems to natural to insert that into some of these old tunes and breathe new life into them.”

Williams has brought back “In The Middle,” from 1994’s Freek, among other throwbacks. It’s a gentle acoustic number that contemplates the passage of time — or the apparent lack thereof as our lives trip onward. That tune, like other classics such as “Freaker by the Speaker,” are getting turned on their heads onstage these days. “Freaker” might be cloaked in jazz on night, reggae on another, he says.

Bottom line, it’s clear that Williams’ work with the KWahtro is fueling his creativity as he looks backward and forward. His career arc has run broad and deep, and he’ll continue to illuminate that unique path as the shows keep coming.

The last time we talked with Williams, in 2013, he mentioned a goal of kicking around some upright bass in future performances. "I've always really dug the upright bass — the real acoustic upright bass mixed in with some super funky drums," he said. Well, here we are. Boller’s work on the low end blends sweetly with Holmes’ exciting percussion work throughout these recent live shows.

Given his catalog, it’s clear that Williams both sets and achieves these sorts of goals — identifying musical worlds he’d like to inhabit and then creating them. Up next? It’s anyone’s guess, really, but Williams tells us he’d like to spend more time with vibraphonist Mike Dillon. (And he will in May, and perhaps a bit more throughout the year.)

“And it would be fun to turn the KWahtro into the SynCo,” Williams muses. “And that would of course be spelled S-Y-N-C, right? Sync? And then capital-C-O-dot — Sync Company. But we’d pronounce it ‘Cinco.’ This is an exclusive. You’re hearing this first. But now we’re full ahead with the KWahtro.”

Keller Williams has been a fixture in the jam scene for 20 years or so, and both he and the community are thriving. Festival season is right around the corner, you know. If you’re looking for a positive sense of direction in this weird country, look no further than the unbridled creativity of one of our most innovative musicians. Right now, in a dorm room somewhere in America, it’s a sure bet that some addled journalism major is hitting “play” on the iconic “Doobie in My Pocket.” Curious roommates will congregate around the funky bass line, and the planet will continue to spin justly.

The Keller Williams KWahtro, The Accidentals
9 p.m., Thursday, March 3, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124.
Tickets: $22 ADV, $25 DOS,

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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