Friday, January 16, 2009

Keller Williams: Going back solo

An improvisational spirit helps this musician replicate the sound of a full band.


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Want to go?

  • Who: Keller Williams
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Jefferson Center, 541 Luck Ave. S.W., Roanoke
  • How much: $20 in advance; $24 at the show
  • Information: 345-2550, jeffcenter.org, kellerwilliams.net.

Keller Williams is primarily a solo performer. Creating electronic loops, laying down sizzling guitar parts over them and singing his songs is what he's become known for.

But for the past 18 months, Williams was the frontman for one of the most interesting bands in jamland. He joined forces with a trio of brilliant players -- Jeff "Apt. Q-258" Sipe on drums, Gibb Droll on guitar and Keith Moseley on bass.

Williams called it his dream band: Keller Williams with Moseley, Droll and Sipe. While touring, the group recorded a beauty of a live CD/DVD set before wrapping up, for the time being, with some early January shows on Jam Cruise 7.

Now it's time to hit the road again, solo, on a tour that stops Sunday at Jefferson Center.

Solo can still be magical

After all that musical interaction among four simpatico souls, will he be lonely up on the Shaftman Hall stage?

"I don't think lonely is a good word," Williams said in a phone interview last month from his home in Fredericksburg. "I'm very comfortable playing solo. It's what I've done for the longest time.

"I think instead of being lonely, it'll be more [about] trying to replicate the band kind of energy. I don't think it'll be a relentless pursuit, but at the same time, playing with the band has definitely given me a newfound energy to play solo. Each kind of helps the other."

To come close to that level of energy recreation, Williams uses electronic phrase sampling.

"Nothing is pre-recorded," he said. "I will create loops ... a guitar loop, or a drum sample loop, or a bass loop. And I'll play it onstage, record it and play it back in time. And then I'll be able to layer in different instruments, until there's a big loop that sounds very reminiscent of a group."

Not that he'll bet trying to directly copy Moseley, Droll and Sipe. Just getting the loops nailed down in good, even time, and playing often difficult guitar parts atop them is an exercise in deep concentration. First, it's about the right beats and the right notes. It's the improvisational spirit that comes afterward that he's thinking of.

"At a certain point, the concentration can kind of disappear, and things can just happen," he said. "And that's when the magic and the beauty can happen."

A fan of fans

Williams, 38, has become an expert at it. He started working with looping devices about a decade ago. It took him a couple of years to get the right kind of gear together to make it happen the way he wanted. By about 2000, it was really starting to come together, and the crowds followed, he said.

They're rabidly enthusiastic crowds -- the type of fans who know all the songs, and are hip to occasional glitches that come along with electronic musical support.

"With this type of show, I'm ... relying upon electronics and electricity, and sometimes that fails," he said. "And that's all part of the show, as well. A lot of the people who come to see me, they know when that happens, and that kind of increases the anticipation of, like, how am I going to get out of that. And I've done so much, and so many problems have happened, it's kind of, I'm ready for it.

"And then the song can take an unexpected turn. Sometimes it's for the best; sometimes it's not. But that's again, all part of the ... trapeze-without-a-net thing that's happening."

Williams' audiences know Williams, his style and his electronically induced quirks. And he knows his audience -- at least by type, and certainly by dancing style.

"There's all different things to look for," he said. "There's their dancing style. There's the lip movement -- do they know the song? Occasionally, you'll have the first-timers that'll just stand there and don't understand, and that's always exciting."

Williams said he can recognize himself in many of them.

"I've been to so many shows myself, and I'm constantly trying to put myself in the place of an audience member ... what would I want if I was in the audience?" he said. "It's a very self-indulgent thing that I'm doing, and I'm very grateful that people respond to it."