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, which was culled from a series of 2012 concerts with a band that included 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 said of “Funk” in an early November phone interview. “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.”
Love of funk
In fact, funk is one of the earliest musical loves for Williams, who will perform sold-out shows Friday, Dec. 20, and Saturday, Dec. 21, at Warren Station Center for the Arts, with special guests with Michael Travis and Michael Kang of The String Cheese Incident on Friday and Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon on Saturday.
“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 said, mentioning a style of music that became particularly identified with the 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 Williams got into about sixth or seventh grade, he started playing trombone in the middle-school symphonic band.
“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. 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 said. “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 to coming to the shows,” Williams said. “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 may make a return appearance in 2014.
“The Mosely, Droll and Sipe guys, I’ve been really longing and wanting to do shows with them, and it looks like there’s a possible four-day run in April that we’re going to be able to play together,” Williams said. “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 “Funk” album culls 10 of the best songs recorded by Williams and More Than A Little during a run of a half-dozen year-end 2012 shows. It 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.