Keller Williams jams Upcountry
Master of many genres entertains at benefit for ocean conservation
Virtuoso musician Keller Williams has been hailed as a multitasking wunderkind. As a PopMatters review notes, aside from the fact that he performs in a dizzying array of genres — from folk, funk and bluegrass to rock, reggae, and electronica — he seems to strike up a new combo seemingly on a whim, most likely to serve his divergent musical purposes.
Performing with various bands such as the Keller Williams Incident, The Keels, Grateful Grass, Kdubalicious, Grateful Gospel, and most recently KWahtro, this unique artist is also known as a one-man jam band, playing multiple instruments, utilizing loops, phasing and other forms of prerecorded instrumentation.
“It started from hours playing in restaurants and coffee shops and bars in 1998 where no one was really paying attention,” Williams explains. “I needed more avenues to go down musically without being able to afford humans to help me get there. I wanted to do it organically and without a net.”
Entrancing audiences, Williams engages as much with humor as his musicality.
“Barefooted and smiling Keller dances from instrument to instrument on stage,” noted a Blackonthecanvas review. “He positively seeps happiness while on stage and that is why his following has become so large and so very dedicated over the last 20 years.”
“It’s the most important thing, my career is a relentless pursuit of entertaining myself,” he says. “If it’s not fun for me, I don’t know how it can be fun for the audience.”
That pursuit includes joyfully entertaining both adults and children. His delightful 2010 album “Kids” includes the catchy, irresistible “Hula Hoop to Da Loop.”
A charming video for the song captures Williams’ unique talent. He begins hula hooping in a Virginia field and picks up some plastic percussion tubes, which he begins tapping on his body creating a rhythm loop. Then he adds hand cymbals, wood percussion sticks, hand claps, a little hip dancing groove, and finally, guitar to create a one-man band. As he begins singing, a bunch of kids suddenly race across the field and begin hula hooping behind him.
“When we did that live, it was about 100 degrees,” he recalls. “The idea behind the record was to create a record that kids could relate to while at the same time the parents could head bop along. Having kids myself, I’ve definitely listened to a lot of painful kid’s music. I was trying not to do that. It’s my bestselling record out of 23. Kids keep being born and parents keep turning their kids on to it.”
Williams returns to Maui on Saturday to play the Stringz n Finz Conservation and Education Benefit at Lumeria Maui in Makawao. Other musicians performing include Peter Rowan, The Larry Keel Experience, Kanekoa and The YumYum Beast. Captain Paul Watson, founder of The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is the keynote speaker. Representatives from Whale Trust, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Love the Sea and Surfrider will also be on hand.
On his latest band album, “Sync,” by the Keller Williams’ KWahtro, Williams playfully explores acoustic dance music, inspired by, “my love of electronic dance music and the fact that I have built my career around acoustic music, and wanting to bring the two together. We were trying to follow the formula of electronic dance music and what came out was kind of a groovy acid jazz on acoustic instruments with upright bass, two acoustic guitars and drums.”
Working with ace drummer Rodney Holmes, who toured with Santana, guitarist Gibb Droll and jazz bassist Danton Boller, who played with Roy Hargrove and Robert Glasper, Williams felt invigorated by the collaboration.
“They are super top notch,” he enthuses. “I’m so grateful they allowed me into their world. It was almost like dumbing down to fit my format. It’s a really fun project to do live.”
Self-taught, Williams was an air guitar fiend before gravitating to the real thing. He credits the TV variety show “Hee Haw” with igniting his musical passion.
“I was about 3 years old and Buck Owens and Roy Clarke were picking and grinning and having a good time, and that led me to pretend to play guitars until I was about 12. I had a guitar, but I moved on to a hockey stick because it looked more like an electric guitar and I used a piece of twine as a strap.”
A life-long Deadhead, he cites the Grateful Dead as his first major musical influence.
“I saw my first show in 1987,” he says. “I was absorbing everything about the Grateful Dead and then all of a sudden, wham there was (guitarist) Michael Hedges, solo acoustic with different kinds of tunings, and taking cover songs and making them his own and demanding audience attention as a solo act. That was a huge thing to discover, Michael Hedges. So there were the two worlds of the improvisational, free, open Grateful Dead mixed in with the intricate, right- handed groove of Michael Hedges.”
In time, the guitarist would collaborate with all the living members of the Dead. He toured as a member of the Rhythm Devils with drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, played with Phil Lesh and Friends, and recorded and played live a number of times with Bob Weir.
“It’s very surreal and full circle,” he says. “Sharing a bus for two weeks with Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann was something I will never forget. I remember the first time playing with Bob Weir was at Red Rocks, the most epic venue in the world, with one of my heroes. It was an unbelievable experience. Then as time went on it became a regular thing as we did more tours together.”
In 2013, he paid homage to his favorite band releasing “KEYS,” singing and playing on Dead tunes like “Terrapin Station,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Althea,” with all proceeds benefitting the Rex Foundation.
“Whenever I sit down at the piano it seems the only thing that comes out are Jerry ballads,” he reports.
His love for the band also includes playing in the tribute bands Grateful Grass, which fuses his fascination with Dead songs mixed “with my love of psychedelic improvisational bluegrass music,” and Grateful Gospel, which focuses on the spiritual gospel side of the Dead and Garcia’s solo music.
“It’s the spiritual side of the Grateful Dead as performed by a R&B, black gospel band,” he explains. “Jerry went into a lot of gospel songs with the Jerry band — ‘Mighty High,’ ‘I Will Be With Thee,’ ‘Brothers and Sisters.’ We have a rhythm section from the gospel world that plays in different chrches. What makes it over the top is four, beautiful, up-front singers. They are far from background singers. It’s a celebration of the spiritual side of the Grateful Dead performed at festivals on Sundays.”
Last year Williams set out on a “Shut The Folk Up And Listen” tour for a series of intimate acoustic shows with guitar legend Leo Kottke. The reviews were blissful.
“It was a very surreal experience to hang out with such a legend,” he says. “I made sure I was present and heard every single note and every single story he told every show. We were drawing on Leo Kottke’s audience to try and teach my audience to sit and listen. It didn’t work every time. Young folks would want to dance.”
George Kahumoku Jr.’s “Masters of Hawaiian Music” show will present a special performance at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Napili Kai Beach Resort’s Aloha Pavilion. Uncle George heads an all-star cast of Led Kaapana, Jeff Peterson, Herb Ohta, Jr., Kevin Brown, Paul Togioka, and more.
The evening also includes the Slack Key Show Ohana — Peter deAquino, Sterling Seaton and Max Angel, and Wainani Kealoha performing hula.
* Tickets range from $37.99 to $95. Reservations are suggested as seating is limited. Tickets are available online at www.SlackKeyShow.com or by calling 669-3858. A pre-show dinner at Napili Kai’s Sea House restaurant is available as a package.
Soul Kitchen celebrates its fifth anniversary with a party at Mulligans On The Blue in Wailea at 7 p.m. Friday, featuring a new enhanced seven-piece band and joined by special guests. Call 874-1131 for reservations.