Surprise funk

If you weren’t paying attention, Keller Williams’ latest might shock you

You guys, the pavement is really hot right now.
C. Taylor Cruthers

Keller Williams’ new CD, Funk, is being touted as something of a surprise album. Considering that Williams is known for playing acoustic music that often has leaned toward folk, that’s understandable.

But to Williams, the Funk album, culled from a series of 2012 concerts with a band that includes bass, drums, keyboards and a pair of female singers, takes him back to one of his core influences and a form of music that has always informed his acoustic guitar playing.

“It feels very normal and a natural progression,” Williams says of Funk. “It’s always kind of been there for me, that right-hand rhythm of keeping that back beat. I’ve always wanted to create some kind of dance vibe, even in the solo acoustic realm. It doesn’t feel like a departure for me at all.”

In fact, funk is one of Williams’ earliest musical loves.

“I lived just south of Washington, D.C. [growing up], and in the early ’80s Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk were these massive go-go bands,” Williams says, mentioning a style of music that became particularly identified with the Washington, D.C., area during that time. “Go-go had a lot of cowbell and bongos, bongos being played with sticks, real crisp bongo sounds on top of cowbell. That kind of has that droning groove that goes on and on. Once I got into like sixth or seventh grade,

I remember I played trombone in the little symphonic band in middle school. Then I was like the first grade to be the eighth grade in the high school in the city and I got to be in the marching band. And all the kick drummers, the band director and all of the drummers and percussion, everyone was super, super into the go-go [sound].

“I want to say that’s probably where it really banged me upside the head because I was so immersed in it and feeling the actual kick drum and the roto toms,” he says. “I think that’s where it started.”

Circumstances took Williams and his music in directions that made some of his influences — including funk — less obvious than they might have otherwise been. As he noted, he became a solo performer out of necessity, not preference.

“When I was a teenager, when I was first starting to play, the idea was always to play in bands, play with groups, have a camaraderie, have this certain connection through music,” he says. “That was always the idea.

Then it came around to making a living at it and I couldn’t afford to be in a band.”

So Williams, 43, started out playing solo acoustic, releasing a debut album, Freek, in 1994 that reflected that approach. But it wasn’t long before he started to stretch the solo form in innovative ways.

With his live shows, he began to incorporate a live looping pedal that allowed him to play one riff, record it and then have it play continuously as he recorded another part. This allowed Williams to layer various instrumental sounds, one at a time, to create the illusion that he had a full band backing his solo guitar performances.

Williams found an early outlet within the jam band scene. Because he played solo and didn’t need stage sets or much in the way of equipment, he was a low-maintenance choice to open for jam bands, which were gaining major popularity in the region that surrounded his Fredericksburg, Va., home base.

What’s more, Williams enjoyed performing solo and using the live looping technique, and his idiosyncratic acoustic-centered sound and highly percussive style of playing proved popular with jam band fans.

“The solo thing started to work really well for me, and I started to open up different avenues with the looping, and people started coming to the shows,” Williams says. “So there was no need to fix what wasn’t broken. The solo thing was working.”

But as time has gone on, the pull of playing with other musicians took hold. In 1999, he released Breathe, an album on which Williams collaborated with The String Cheese Incident. Especially since the mid-2000s, he has started to pursue band projects.

First up was a bluegrass project with husband and wife Larry and Jenny Keel called Keller & The Keels. The trio released the albums Grass, in 2006, and Thief, in 2010, and continues to perform together. In between those projects, Williams released the 2007 album, Dream, which featured collaborations with Ben Harper, Bob Weir, Bela Fleck and a host of other musical friends.

He also formed a band with bassist Keith Moseley, guitarist Gibb Droll and drummer Jeff Sipe that toured under the band name the WMDs in 2007 and 2008 and will make a return appearance in April.

“The Moseley, Droll and Sipe guys, I’ve been really longing and wanting to do shows with them,” Williams says. “I’m really kind of chomping at the bit for that.”

More recently, Williams joined forces with the Travelin’ McCourys, the backing band for bluegrass legend Del McCoury, made the 2012 album, Pick, and toured behind that record.

Next came the funk project, which Williams named More Than A Little after a particularly funky acoustic song he recorded for his 2001 album, Loop. The project came together quite casually, with the idea that it would culminate with a half-dozen concerts between Christmas and New Year’s of last year that would be recorded for what became the Funk album.

“The connection kind of came with the drummer, Toby Fairchild,” Williams says. “He and I had played together before in a different band. He was doing an R&B night with pretty much the rhythm section [bassist EJ Shaw and keyboardist Gerard Johnson] and [singer] Tonya [Lazenby], one of the ladies, on a Tuesday night. I sat in with them and it was super special and fun. It was the connection made. And I was like, let’s get another lady and add it into the mix. They brought in Sugah Davis, and then we started rehearsing and it really started clicking. It just kind of went from there.”

Funk culls 10 of the best songs from a repertoire that includes Williams’ originals (reworked into a full-band funk format) and covers of songs by Rick James (“Mary Jane”), the Talking Heads (“Once in a Lifetime”) and Donna Summer (“I Feel Love”). The performances on Funk are fun, light-hearted and just a bit quirky.

Word of the original shows got around, and Williams and More Than A Little have continued to play shows last year. Now the group is back out on a tour that continues into March (with Williams doing a solo set to open the evening).

More Than A Little’s repertoire has expanded considerably since its first shows, and Williams says the group has even more songs to play now.

“We have definitely putting in different songs, my original music as well as covers,” Williams says. “We’re putting in a whole bunch of new stuff. The stuff from the [Funk] record will definitely be peppered into the sets. They’re just fun songs to play. But there’s definitely a lot of new material that I’m excited about.”