by David Schultz
The one man tour-de-force known as Keller Williams swept into New York City this past Friday, invading the Nokia Theater, Times Square's newest music hall. Williams' unconventional stage show relies as heavily on his ability to play numerous different instruments of varying difficulty as it does on his proficiency with his looping machine. Throughout the evening, Williams, a prodigious guitar player, captured various guitar riffs with the machine, using the repetitive loop as the backbeat. The looping track frees Williams to mischievously scour the stage, allowing him to add a second guitar or mix different instruments into the loop. While this seems like a lot of work, Keller effortlessly mixes everything together with a practiced ease that obscures his impressive technical skills.
Williams' inventive stage shows have made him a darling of the jamband circuit. Even without strong record sales or radio airplay, Keller's well-deserved reputation for providing an entertaining show, based on his ever-changing set lists of original songs, improvisational jams and eclectic covers, make his concerts sold-out draws. Williams' easily identifiable originals, typified by flowing guitar riffs and sharp, bouncy staccato percussion, though eminently enjoyable, often sound alike. At times, but for the vocals, it's hard to differentiate one Williams original from another. During brief sets, this presents a minor annoyance: over the course of a 2 hour headlining act it can become infuriating.
At the Nokia, Williams deftly avoided the issue, shying away from his own material while devoting almost half the show to other musicians' songs. Williams skillfully adapted the covers to his own style. For the Beatles' Drive My Car, Williams incorporated a triangle and his own mouth-trumpet into the backing loop. In tackling the Steve Miller Band's The Joker, Williams accompanied himself on a traditional stand-up bass. Straight forward readings of Jimi Hendrix' The Wind Cries Mary and Cracker's Teen Angst sounded fresh without the Williams' gimmickry. Slyly acknowledging the spectacle taking place down the road at Madison Square Garden, Keller adopted Bonoish mannerisms to close his version of U2's Bad. Williams' cleverly interpreted covers are a trademark of his live shows. However, relying on them to the exclusion of his own material puts Williams at risk of becoming labeled a cover act, albeit a witty and entertaining one.
Keller included a good smattering of his own tunes, working longtime favorites like Sally Sullivan, Roshambo and Inhale To The Chief into the mix. With the exception of Celebrate Your Youth, Williams did not offer lengthy versions of his own material, preferring instead to move quickly from one to the other after only a verse or two. Disappointingly, Williams relegated Freeker By The Speaker, his most popular song, to an instrumental introduction to the Grateful Dead's St. Stephen. In addition to another Dead cover, Jack-A-Roe, Williams reached deeper into the catalogue of his jamband roots, finishing his first set with Phish's Runway Jim and Run Like An Antelope and closing the show with his Big Summer Classic tour mate Michael Franti's Stay Human, praising "all the freaky people making music in the world" before segueing into Bob Marley's Rastman Chant.
The mélange of sound created by Williams nicely filled the wide, spacious and inviting Nokia Theater. The Nokia, which opened last month, contains a wide expansive floor in front of the stage with small balconies overlooking the sides. For those who don't wish to stand for an entire show, the rear of the theater has approximately a dozen rows of unreserved seats, leftovers from the Nokia's prior incarnation as a movie theater, available for those who get to them first. Logistics aside, the sound system for the theater is truly first-rate with Williams' every note clearly heard throughout the hall. More evident during Steve Winwood's show earlier in the week, the sound quality problems that plagued Winwood and his band during their Bowery Ballroom performance weeks earlier were noticeably absent. With the ability to provide both size and intimacy, the Nokia quite possibly could be the best venue to see and hear music in New York City.
No matter how good the theater, the music on stage remains the important factor. To the uninitiated, Keller Williams' untraditional approach can be off putting. Without seeing how Williams concocts the music, you can't appreciate the genius of its creation. The description of a guitarist playing and singing along to a backing loop might give the impression that Williams should be dismissed as a quirky karaoke artist. To categorize Keller Williams in such a simplistic manner would be an injustice to an inventive creative performer. To grasp Williams, he must be seen and simply purchasing an album or downloading one or two tracks won’t give you the full understanding of Williams' music.
Labels: Keller Williams