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Published: 2006/02/17
by Brian Ferdman

Grass – Keller and the Keels

Sci Fidelity

Once upon a time, Keller Williams was just a guy with a guitar. There were no bass solos, no riffs on the djembe, no auxiliary percussion fills, and no loop jams. When he got onstage, he sang his quirky originals and drew on a wealth of eclectic covers, strumming away on his acoustic. He hadn't even developed his Michael Hedges-influenced style of picking. People came to see Keller Williams the solo act not Keller Williams the wild and crazy one man band. Of course, time passed, success arrived, and money brought in scores of fancy gadgets and new instruments to master while his sound evolved.

Now Keller has pushed all of the extravagance to the sidelines and focused once again on a more simple approach to songs. On his new album, Grass, Keller enlists the aid of Larry and Jenny Keel, as he and his cohorts reinvent plenty of covers and a few originals in a bluegrass style. Transforming rock songs into bluegrass is nothing new. The Pickin’ On series has completely revolved around the concept, and countless other bands have taken up the habit. So what makes Grass noteworthy? For starters, the presence of Larry Keel adds instant credibility. The legendary North Carolina flatpicker consistently tosses out intricate solos that both dazzle the ears and offer serious introspection into the more moody songs. His frenetic and soaring flights on Jeff Austin’s "New Horizons" send the song spiraling wildly off its axis. Conversely, he adds an eerie layer of mystery to "Mary Jane’s Last Breakdown," a haunting but brilliant interweaving of Tom Petty’s "Mary Jane’s Last Dance" and "Breakdown." Larry Keel also has a slightly gruff voice that blends well with his bass-playing wife Jenny’s bright vocals to create fittingly countrified harmonies.

But what about Keller? With Jenny Keel holding down the basslines, Keller can concentrate on churning out deft rhythms. He's clearly found the perfect foil in Larry Keel's explosive leads, and the two combine to form an excellent synthesis, often feeding off one another in fantastic counterpoint. Compositionally, his offerings of "Good Balls" and "Local" are perfect fits within the bluegrass theme. The former erupts into an invigorating breakdown, while the latter serves as a happy-go-lucky back-country shuffling ode to getting baked. The combination of the two aforementioned Tom Petty tunes on "Mary Jane's Last Breakdown" works seamlessly, thanks to Keller’s sparse but brooding banjo. The blending of Beck's "Loser" with the Garcia/Hunter composition of the same name doesn't quite have the same effect, but it isn't terribly offensive, albeit a little too cute.

Vocally, Keller isn’t really suited for all of these songs because his mellow, childlike voice is often at odds with the lyrics. "Another Brick in the Wall" requires seething rage but fails with passive indifference, while his performance on "Dupree's Diamond Blues" is sadly preoccupied with being goofy rather than highlighting the irony in Robert Hunter's twisted story. Alas, if there has ever been a major knock against Keller Williams, it’s surely been his limited vocal abilities. His pitch has never been an issue, but he often sells a song short by opting for silliness instead of bringing truth to the lyrics. That being said, his turn on the old Karl Davis and Harty Taylor chestnut, “I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” is a real about-face, delivered with the grit and fire the song requires.

During two days of studio time, every note of Grass, aside from harmony vocals, was recorded live. In listening to this album, it’s clear that over those two days, one of which just happened to be the tenth anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s passing, these three musicians formed a tremendous bond. Whether it’s in their complex interplay, their high lonesome harmonies, or even their casual comments at the end of a song, Keller and the Keels sound like a real family with a rich musical history. Not only have these three musicians successfully replicated an old-time sound, but they have also reproduced an old-time spirit that is synonymous with bluegrass music. Anyone can play the notes, but not everyone can capture the essence of the music, and Keller & The Keels have successfully taken these often bombastic modern tunes and placed them around the comfy confines of a campfire. grass evokes a time when music was simpler, and one can only hope that this unique and tremendously enjoyable experience will continue to influence Keller Williams’ music for years to come.

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