Keller Williams wows Boston with creativity

by Scott Muir | 10/17/05 5:00am

Keller Williams has achieved success on his own terms, and has been wowing audiences for over a decade with his wholly original approach to solo performance. Keller has appeared at the Bonnaroo and High Sierra music festivals several times and shared the stage with such acclaimed artists as String Cheese Incident, moe. and The Roots' ?uestlove. He has also made nine albums and played thousands of shows all over the U.S. and Europe.

Like many of his fans, Williams spent a good part of the late '80s and early '90s following the Grateful Dead around the country while he developed his unorthodox guitar style. He began to experiment with unconventional tunings and time signatures, and his quirky rhythms made playing with other musicians both difficult and unnecessary. He impressed audiences with his singing talents and vocal creativity, often beat-boxing, scatting and employing his incredible "mouth flugle" to give his songs more depth. His clever, humorous storytelling complemented his unique playing and endearing stage presence perfectly, and he steadily developed a national fan base from his hometown in Fredericksburg, Virginia, traveling incessantly and playing 200 to 300 shows a year all over the country.

In the late '90s, Williams started experimenting with loop technology, building layer upon layer to make his tunes more intricate. Since then, he has picked up over 20 different instruments and earned a reputation as one of today's greatest solo performers. He has revolutionized the loop and expanded the possibilities for live music as played by an individual. On his last two albums, 2003's "Home" and 2004's live "Stage," Williams sounds like a full band with a single brain. Both albums achieved critical and commercial success and won him two Jammy awards for best studio and live album of the year, respectively.

Williams has become famous for his creativity, versatility, improvisational skill, refined compositions and virtuosity with guitar, bass and vocals. He defies classification as he seamlessly blends genres -- from rock to reggae to bluegrass to jazz -- and in the last few years, his setlists have become increasingly crowded with his strikingly original takes on classics by an extremely large and eclectic group of artists. Williams' fans travel far and wide to see him every year because he is able to make each show unique by constantly experimenting, changing song selection and even playing with the composition and improvisation of his tunes. He puts on a jaw-dropping aural and visual spectacle with boundless energy and a huge grin for an exhausting two-and-a-half hours.

It was no different last Thursday night at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. The amazing one-man band played his biggest New England show yet, nearly filling all 2,800 seats with energetic, smiling fans. He began the show with acoustic renditions of some of his older tunes, including the cleverly ambiguous "Stinky Green," demonstrating his overwhelming technical ability, unique style and humor. Williams demonstrated his looping ability and vocal range on the obscure Prince song "Love Bizarre." Later in the first set, he constructed a hypnotic harmonic loop of over ten improvised vocal layers, drawing a raucous ovation from the captivated audience. Before taking a break, Williams also played piano on his friend Martin Sexton's "Black Sheep" and reworked his old acoustic number "Tribe" into a complex collaboration of vocal percussion.

Williams opened the second set on his acoustic ten-string with aggressive takes on his classics. An extended "Bounty Hunter" included the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider" and breathtaking bluesy solos. After a synthesizer heavy loop, Williams demonstrated his skills on his new upright bass, thumping out a swinging salute to Steely Dan's "Ricki, Don't Lose That Number." Next, he blew the crowd away as he assembled an incredibly dense, danceable wall of percussion and bass before exhibiting his courage and confidence with a charismatically energetic a cappella version of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein."

The artist picked up the acoustic again for his classic "Running on Fumes" and executed a seamless segue into a fiery, passionate cover of Ben Harper's "Glory and Consequence." He ended the set with a pair of his newest songs on his custom eight-string -- five guitar strings and three bass strings, made popular by jazz virtuoso Charlie Hunter -- flawlessly playing complementary treble and bass lines simultaneously. The crowd nearly shook the Orpheum with their enthusiastic appreciation, drawing a grinning, grateful Williams out for one more song. He ended the show with a long, sizzling take on fan favorite "Vacate," sending the joyful crowd home in awe. The one-man band had done it again.

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