“That’s the best part of what I do and how I do it,” Williams says, speaking by phone en route to a show in Alexandria, Va. “Even with something as basic as the songs, the freedom is endless. Playing solo all the time makes me love playing with other musicians. Even playing different venues allows you to change it up as well. The freedom is endless, and I’m over-the-top grateful to be able to do this.”
As with many artists associated with the improvisation-rich jamband scene, Williams must be seen live to be understood and fully appreciated. On Thursday, April 22, Williams returns to Birmingham to perform in the Workplay Soundstage. Though he has performed in Birmingham on several occasions, this will mark Williams’ debut performance at the Southside venue.
A virtual one-man band, Williams constructs songs with the aid of a looping unit that allows him to layer vocal and instrumental parts. Williams especially relishes his creative freedom in the live setting and continually reworks his own material. “A lot of times I’ll change the arrangements to the songs that I’ve played for years,” he says. “People sing along to them, so as long as I keep that cadence and I’m in the right key, I can change the music however I want to, and that keeps it refreshing. For example, I’ll set up a crazy drum loop and sing a song over the top of it, and that keeps it fresh. Tonight, I’ll play one of the songs I’ve done for years and I’ll do it straight-ahead jazz and I’ll be singing it in the same key and tempo as people know it. That same song can also be done as straight bluegrass.”
In August 2009, Williams released his 14th album, Odd. Recorded over a two-month period, Williams admits that the title fits the album’s body of material. “A good percentage of that record is songs that were road-tested that never really found a place on any other record,” he says. “Some of them have been around for years and others are a little more recent, but they all kind of fit together in this one spot and found a nice little home on that compilation. Lyrically and musically, the whole package is slightly odd.”
Thriving in a musical community known for its taper-friendly policy at live shows, Williams has reaped the benefits of technology and the access it offers. As an example, the website Archive.org had 638 of Williams’ live shows available for downloading at a recent check. However, Williams confesses that he hasn’t always been enamored with the Internet’s prominent role in musical distribution.
“It’s something that took me awhile to grasp onto, as far as losing the romance of the album with the songs in order as the artist intended for them to be heard,” he says. “Now, you go and pluck the ones you want. It took me awhile to grasp onto that. I have definitely accepted it and I think you have to roll with the changes.”
Fortunately for Williams, he has not depended solely on record sales for his livelihood. “I’ve just focused on the live shows and ticket sales,” he says. “The records have been [made] to document the stuff I’ve written and it’s out there. With that in mind, it can get out there in so many ways for free and it’s become the norm that music is free. In some ways it’s a drag and in other ways it’s beautiful. I’m a music lover and I go online, so I put myself in the place of the listener at the same time. I’ve definitely accepted it and welcomed it.”
In addition to upcoming solo dates, Williams has booked shows with The Keels in support of his second collaborative album with the duo, a disk of covers called Thief that was recorded in December. “We did that record in two eight-hour studio sessions, and then it took three or four days to mix it,” Williams says. “That’s going to be coming out in May. We’re going to go out and do a bunch of festivals, one of which is the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, so I’m really excited about that.”
In light of his own restless creative spirit—and in referencing recent collaborations by Robert Plant/Alison Krauss and Bruce Hornsby/Ricky Skaggs— I ask Williams about the blurring of genre lines in today’s musical climate. “I think it’s a bunch of creative people wanting to go further with what they do,” he says. “Especially in our world, the festival scene, a lot of folks see each other at the same festivals and the camaraderie is there. To get on stage and collaborate– it’s almost a shame not to do it if you know people and you’re friends and everyone’s in the same mindset. There’s the possibility of it not being good, and that makes it so exciting. Another person enters your safety zone and changes everything and it makes it so much better. I kind of live for it.”
Keller Williams performs in the Workplay Soundstage on Thursday, April 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $20 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com or by calling (205) 380-4082.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.