Musicians drool over the kind of artistic freedom Keller Williams regularly enjoys. He does solo shows — not your usual solo-show fare, but rather danceable acoustic music (he calls it "ADM"), crafted together with layers of looped instruments he lays down on the spot, his agile, bro-next-door voice acting as the final layer. Some of Williams' one-word-titled albums (Freek, Buzz, Spun, Stage, Grass, etc.) highlight his skills on (or fascination with) a single instrument (Bass, for example) or genre (Pick is a bluegrass album, Kids is child-friendly music, Thief = cover songs, and so on). He's played in various ensembles in a range of genres: bluegrass with the Travelin' McCourys or the Keels; jam-band rock with the String Cheese Incident or the Rhythm Devils (featuring Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart); funk and R&B with More Than a Little (his latest project, documented on the upcoming release Funk). He does what he wants, it seems, and people keep showing up.
A Virginia native, Williams has also removed himself from the usual musician's cycle of recording an album, releasing it and touring behind it. "I'm never really promoting an album," Williams said by phone from his home near Fredericksburg, Va. "It's never been part of my livelihood... I'm not pushing the record for money. That's the beautiful thing about my career. I'm able to jump around with different projects... It's a great space for me to be in," Williams said, "because of the unlimited freedom and different avenues I can go down musically, and the different musicians I get to play with."
When we spoke, Williams was gearing up for a weekend of bluegrass in Chattanooga, Tenn. with the Keels and the McCourys. On Oct. 11, he'll be at Toad's Place in New Haven doing his solo thing, with Floodwood (featuring members of moe.) opening. As a solo performer, Williams darts around the stage, setting up grooves on various electronic toys and electric and acoustic instruments: bass, keyboards, guitars and so on. With everything in place, he sings smart, funny, lyrics. He's a terrific improviser. (The jam band scene has embraced Williams from his start in the early '90s.) Each show is unique, and he feels obligated to keep it that way.
"It was always about pushing the limits," Williams said. "It was, 'What happens if I just play bluegrass? What happens if it's just me playing with a djembe?' It was around the time I was doing 200 shows a year. You can't go out and play the same shows every night. Once people started buying tickets, it became a real moral issue: What to give them? I didn't want it to be stagnant in any way. It was always just a challenge to take it further."
Williams and More Than a Little — bassist E.J. Shaw, keyboard player Gerard Johnson, drummer Toby Fairchild and vocalists Tonya Lazenby Jackson and Sugah Davis — recorded the live performances on Funk during two Virginia gigs, one of them in Richmond, where MTAL calls home. They'd only done six or shows together at that point, but Williams wanted to capture the energy of a band at the start of a run.
"The band was still very, very fresh, and I'm really glad that I did the recordings then," Williams said. "There was an energy. It's new love, you know?" The album folds in four Williams originals with several covers, including the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," the Grateful Dead's "West L.A. Fadeaway" and "I Told You I Was Freaky" by Kiwi comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. "We had a real handle on the material, and we knew exactly what we were going to be doing. It was all really fresh," Williams said. It also helped that the band was at home.
Williams first walked in on the veteran musicians at an empty Richmond bar on a Tuesday night, where Fairchild presided over a weekly R&B jam. (Williams and Fairchild previously played together in a band called Added Bonus.) The group invited Williams to play. "[Fairchild] had almost the whole band, minus one of the ladies," Williams said. "We did one-chord grooves, and it really worked and gelled. I remember it being real and top-notch." During a one-chord version of the Beatles' "Drive My Car," Williams connected with Johnson, a gospel organist used to following the rising and falling vocal cadences of a preacher, in a way he knew he wanted to experience again. "I tucked that in my back pocket," Williams said.
The whole band started rehearsing once a week until they had a full set of songs. "Once in a Lifetime," Williams said, served as a "gap-bridger" between musical worlds, "something they knew as singers and players." Williams never plays a cover "straight." "You might as well just go home and listen to the record," he said.
With any career, years pass before you get to do what you want, if ever, but Williams never thinks of what he does as "work."
"It's extremely fun and it feels like it should be illegal," Williams said. "Anything that's that much fun should be illegal... I've never settled into one particular genre, out of a fear of becoming stagnant. Mixed in with an undiagnosed attention deficit disorder."
w/ Floodwood, Oct. 11, 9 p.m., $20-$25, Toad's Place, 300 York St., New Haven, (203) 624-8623, toadsplace.com