Friday night at Tipitina’s
Keller Williams calls his solo act his day job. By means of his Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro looping units, he transforms himself and his instruments into a one-man band in real time.
Williams also moonlights with bluegrass band the Travelin’ McCourys; members of the Grateful Dead; his reggae-funk band, Kdubalicious, and his recently launched soul-funk project, More Than a Little.
A prolific recording artist as well, Williams is releasing his 19th album, “Keys,” a voice and solo piano collection of Grateful Dead songs, on Feb. 12. “Keys” follows last year’s “Pick,” a collaboration with the Travelin’ McCourys. The latter projects follow Williams’ album-naming tradition of one-word titles, including “Bass,” “Laugh,” “Buzz,” “Dance,” “Loop” and his 1994 debut, “Freek.”
Like so many others, Williams started his career as a singer-guitarist on a bar stool performing other people’s songs.
“The idea from the beginning, since I was a kid, was to be in bands, share that camaraderie and make music with humans,” the traveling Williams said from Little Rock, Ark.
But Williams, for many years, could not afford to pay humans to be his band. Even so, he rejected the option of working with an invisible band by means of pre-recorded tracks.
“I wanted to create samples more organically and do it on the fly,” he explained.
So Williams began making loops, recording sounds on stage that can be played back repeatedly and seamlessly blended into his live performance.
“I got lucky,” he said. “Once I brought the bass into the loops, it really started to change. People started dancing and listening, buying tickets and coming to shows.”
Williams’ success as a one-man band made having a band unnecessary.
“I could actually afford humans, but it was already working as a solo act,” he said. “There wasn’t a need to fix something that wasn’t broken.”
In addition to his three synced Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro looping units, Williams’ conventional instruments include a Fender Precision bass, a Gibson Chet Atkins guitar fitted with a synthesizer pickup and a Martin acoustic guitar.
Working without a band leaves Williams free to perform any song he wants, whenever he wants.
“There’s so much freedom,” he said. “I definitely take advantage of that.”
Williams’ eclectic repertoire dates from his youth in Fredericksburg, Va., a historic city midway between Washington, D.C., and the Civil War-era capital of the Confederacy, Richmond.
He heard all kinds of music in Fredericksburg, from D.C.’s go-go music — a Latin-spiced funk style popularized by Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown — to Virginia’s traditional bluegrass. And he was especially fond of the Grateful Dead.
“The Grateful Dead had this incredible mix of an Americana kind of bluegrass and country music with a psychedelic tinge,” he said.
Even when he’s working with the Travelin’ McCourys, a group he considers bluegrass royalty, Williams follows the Grateful Dead’s lead in improvisation and genre-blending.
“We do some reggae and fun stuff like that,” he said. “In my solo show, I definitely do different genres. I love so many types of music and I don’t want to play one specific genre. I could have a slight touch of attention deficit disorder as well, but I have not been officially been diagnosed.”
John Wirt is music writer for The Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.