It was an evening of bone chilling cold on Friday, February 12 but the vibe and the energy coming out of SoHo’s City Winery were rip roaring hot. Keller Williams and his KWahtro brand of “acoustic dance music” with his touring mates Gibb Droll (guitar), Danton Boller (double bass) & Rodney Holmes (drums) came in and laid their own brand of groove down.
Just in case you were wondering what the funk “acoustic dance music” was all about, Williams describes it thus:
“Using my songs as a template for creations involving improvisational bursts of new disco, reggae, drum and bass and jazz swing afro trap, all with two acoustic guitars, double bass, and drums. This project is an attempt to bring my vision to life and as always, to entertain myself onstage while hopefully entertaining you.”
Williams and his brood are nothing if not entertaining. The whole house seemed to really enjoy his self-professed nouveau melding of styles. Being unfamiliar with his body of work before seeing the show, I approached the Varick Street destination with a skeptical eye. However by evenings end even I wanted to “Hula Hoop to the Loop.”
Williams has a rich history of music and recording that actually reaches back 20 years. He’s got a predictable habit of one word album titles; “Freak,” “Dance,” “Breathe,” “Laugh,” “Home,” and many others leading all the way to his most recent recording “Vape.” I only call this predictable because he seemed to be solely focused on the music and not really about the pomp and circumstance of his place in the room. His energy and concentration were totally committed to his playing and his art.
Williams called this presentation “acoustic dance music” and it shows. Still, most dance music is simple grooves with lots of repetition. I was more fascinated by his commitment to the intricate rhythms he laid down. He entered the stage barefoot in black trousers and a black t-shirt, spinning. He cut across the stage in something of a figure 8 style all while playing a solo slap guitar full of reverb and funk. He didn’t boastfully call attention to himself; he just kept his joy in the groove.
He stayed out onstage for a couple of songs by himself. His first song “Cadillac" had many of the typical musings of a confused, southern artist. He was trying to get back to some illusive ’59 Convertible Cadillac with tons of speakers. His journey commences with Allah, Buddha, God, Santa, Hare Krishna, and Jesus. The depth of this song is further heightened by the fact that it’s daylight savings time while he’s on the train. The loss of time, energy, and the title car evokes the caustic hopelessness of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Despite the heavier themes gleaned on deeper reading, the spirit of the song was upbeat and fun.
From there he totally switched gears to one of his most recognizable songs, “Doobie in My Pocket.” This song was an anxious meditation in an airport line that he’s left a shirt with a joint in his bag that’s about to be screened and all the possibilities therein. He could get in trouble in a variety of ways. He even surmises he could lose the joint to some disgruntled airport worker, police officer or even somehow a Starbucks employee who’s on the take. As the song draws to a fervent close he realizes that he’s wearing the shirt with the doobie in his pocket and all is right with the world again. The anticlimax of this tune is that none of his apocalyptic predictions came true and he’s once again free to puff away, for now.
Many of the sounds coming from KWahtro and Keller Williams seemed quite familiar. Despite his sometimes-exotic presentation this guy owes as much to Don McLean and Jaco Pastorius as he does to Jackson Browne and Weird Al. His sound is one part “Soul Suckin' Jerk” and one part “Lose Yourself to Dance.” Simplistic comparisons are with jam bands like Phish or The Grateful Dead or even bluegrass or country. Still, rather than taking all these mainline sounds and dumbing them down or mucking them up, he uses his electronic synthesizers, plays some fierce fast rhythms on his slap acoustic, and spools out a fresh sound for the refined palette that’s more distillation than dilution. Williams is paying homage to all those who’ve come before him and still keeping the vibe fresh and original.
One of the big caveats on his live shows is that Williams never does any two shows the same. On the evening of the show, I heard more than one of his longtime fans effusively gush to this sentiment. The young woman sitting next to me at City Winery and I struck up a conversation before the show began and her approval was overarching.
Williams kept this show fresh by gradually introducing all of the musicians in his ensemble. He began playing alone; then brought out Droll to play a second guitar line for a few songs. After that he introduced Boller for a couple of tunes before completing the ensemble with the drummer Holmes.
All the while the audience kept their groove going. The young woman next to me became “one with the music.” During “Nepalese Temple Balls” she openly laughed and taking cues form elsewhere in the room began singing along and swayed with the songs. She was not alone; City Winery had a section in the middle of the house where people had cleared a space to begin pulsing and gyrating; it was almost as though we were introducing a 1960’s love-in with Deadhead Dancers leading the charge. However the mood and the atmosphere at City Winery never hiccoughed into a trippy place; everything remained peaceful and pleasant while still energized and enigmatic.
As I reflected I realized that I wouldn't call this acoustic dance music; this seemed to be more like an opera or gradually ascending symphonic movement. Beginning with the quieter solo work this moved up to a duo, then a trio, culminating with the full ensemble. People could dance, but you didn’t have to in order to appreciate the sounds generated.
The band took a break in the middle and came back as a four piece playing tunes that fans will recognize like “Freaker by the Speaker.” Even though the house was packed and everyone really seemed to be enjoying themselves, there seemed to be a bit of sadness in Williams voice when he introduced a “newish” song and noted, “This song may end up on the radio; probably not.” The life of a touring artist can be cruel but with the very supportive group of fans at City Winery, it seemed clear that Keller Williams and his traveling musicians could at least enjoy an evening of revelry.
As for his fellow musicians, everyone seemed to really get into it. When Gibb Droll took on an acoustic guitar solo he tore it up, furiously shredding and turning his clenched grimace skyward in his worship to and from his guitar Gods.
Danton Boller was introduced as not really being all that familiar with the style of music he was playing this night. I don’t know too much about this musician or how long he’d been playing with Keller Williams but he definitely held his own on the standup double bass.
Then there is the matter of Rodney Holmes. This guy is a pretty amazing drummer! Just before the four piece’s finale, Holmes was allotted time on the stage for his own rollicking solo which went on for several minutes. He was equal parts swinging Max Roach finesse and thunderous John Bonham power and he earned his spot on the throne this night.
Keller Williams definitely has a following. People unfamiliar with his style may not appreciate his electronic/acoustic music, but when I watched an older video before the show of his looping himself on top of himself, I recalled something I fell in love with some years ago.
Ingrid Michaelson was a featured performer at the Michael Dorf “Music of REM Tribute Concert” at Radio City Music Hall. This event led to an awesome after-party at the same City Winery where Williams played. But when Michaelson took the Radio City stage she actually looped her own voice as the underlying part of the strings and piano in REM’s “Nightswimming.” Keller Williams use of this tool tonight was sparing. When he did employ it, his interpretation was a little more funky and explosive than graceful and melodic. However this is the new world of music we live in and both approaches lend a captivating effect for the careful listener.
Following the Holmes solo, Williams returned to cover Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and riff off of the Savage Garden chorus to “I Want You” before the lights came on and the crowd spilled out into the frigid SoHo air.
Keller Williams continues the tour through the spring and even has dates listed out as far as August. If you’re a fan of funky, upbeat, joyous, explosive tunes and you’d like to come get your barefooted groove on, come out and witness the Keller Williams experience! You’ll be glad you did!