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 includes bass, drums, keyboards and a pair of female singers, takes him back to one of his core stylistic influences.
“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.”
FEELING THE FUNK
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 Troublefunk were these massive go-go bands,” Williams said, mentioning a funk-influenced style of music that became particularly identified with the Washington, D.C., area beginning in the 1960s. “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 said. “I think that’s where it started.”
Stretching the solo form
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, using live looping on stage to create other instrumental parts and give the illusion that he was accompanied by multiple musicians.
He gained an early following opening for jam bands, and as his popularity grew, he soon started headlining, using live looping on some songs and playing solo acoustic on others.
WORKING WITH GROUPS
But as time went on, the pull of playing with other musicians took hold. Since the mid-2000s, he has formed several band projects, including Keller & the Keels (a bluegrass project with husband and wife Larry and Jenny Keel), a group with bassist Keith Moseley, guitarist Gibb Droll and drummer Jeff Sipe that toured under the band name the WMDs, a collaboration with the Travelin’ McCourys (backing band for bluegrass legend Del McCoury) and now the funk band, which is called More Than A Little.
Williams said More Than A Little came together quite casually and originally planned just to play 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 said. “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 the year-end 2012 shows and 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.
Williams and More Than A Little have continued to play concerts this year, though Williams show at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek on Thursday is a solo show.