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Published: 2005/11/03
by Mike Greenhaus

Keller Williams, Nokia Theater, New York, NY-10/14

At first he seems to blend into his surroundings. Projected in billboard-size, on the side of the mammoth midtown theater that serves as MTV’s outer shell, Keller Williams bounces around like a Broadway dancer, ready to take a passage from New York’s recent Shakedown musical directly onto the theater district’s most famous strip. Below, on the corner of 44th and Broadway, a huddle of twenty-somethings, mesmerized by Time Square’s flickering lights and ADD-approved advertisements, talk shop with a local shish kabob vendor, while another circle debates whether or not the moving image is in fact being pumped live from within. Given the plush venue they’re about to enter, it’s not an entirely uneducated guess, though as it turns out, an incorrect one, as the screen cuts to another scene from Sight, Williams’ most recent DVD offering. As ticket holders pass under the Nokia Theater’s multi-media marquee, an image of a roller-blading Williams is looped above. For a split second, Williams is the city’s biggest star, possessing enough zest to combat his advertorial competition, Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong and the Nokia’s closest neighbor, the Hard Rock CafSomeone chuckles as a team of metal detector-equipped security guards perform an updated variation of a concert ritual, the pat-down, before properly descending into New York’s newest multi-level advertisement.

It’s the type of scene one would expect from a hippie-rock parody, a theater full of festival-ready concertgoers stranded in the heart of Times Square who must find their way back to headier pastures. But, not even Cameron Crowe could recreate the odd-experience of watching Keller Williams —- a man whose set is custom-designed for the summer hippie-festival —- perform at a venue whose atrium doubles as a three-dimensional cell phone display. The first act in a three-night, jamband crash-course in all-things-Nokia, Williams must have felt like a pioneer of sorts, leading a troupe of fans into an unknown venue determined to win over the jam-faithful. And, given his ability to handle song- oriented sensory overload with ease, Williams was as likely a candidate as any to DJ Nokia’s first tried-and-true, jam-scene party.

Like any new theater, Nokia offers its share of distractions. In fact, co-opting a trick the Merry Pranksters presumable patented around the time of the acid tests, throughout the night the venue’s lobby slowly changed colors, blending to mirror both the green hue of the room’s wall-size Heineken display, as well as the row of underage patrons turning blue in an alcove nestled between the venue’s duel restrooms. Meanwhile, in the food court, somewhat confused retailers pawned five-dollar cookies, while frustrated bartenders tried to explain to even more confused patrons that Heineken is indeed the only beer that Nokia has to offer.

As a performance space, however, the Nokia is custom-designed for the jam-show. A multi-level, general admission theater built from the ashes of an expired movie theater, it’s the rare venue, with multiple, choice-viewing spots and enough platforms to accommodate any type of fan: twirlers, trippers, high-rollers and aspiring pharmacists who quickly gravitated to Nokia’s ultra-plush, bottom-lit seats——an artifact from the venue’s previous life. But, by the time Williams’ kicked off his two-set, three-hour show, the venue’s glitz and glamour began to feel as staged as its Times Square surroundings—- a mall-like re-creation of how a rock-venue should feel. And, as he ran through his own blend of covers and carefully looped originals, Williams found himself forced into the role of a Disney character, relying on gag-and-tag lines to regain his audience’s attention.

In many ways, it wasn’t Williams’ fault. The Nokia Theater was built to meet its surroundings, boasting such not-as-cool-asthey-sound attractions as cell phone charging stations (AKA electrical outlets) and an outdoor terrace (AKA a ten-foot, roped- off area for smokers). Perhaps the festival circuit’s most prolific performer, Williams has dealt with distractions before and, like any good DJ, encourages his crowd to mingle and explore. He’s also developed a number of tricks to rein wanderers back towards the stage, including an arsenal of crowd-pleasing covers.

But, unlike a festival spot, in this club setting, Williams stood alone onstage for upwards of three hours, turning his cover-fest into, in realty, a living jukebox. Boasting a repertoire that ranged from a nifty Phish package with a pairing of “Runaway Jim” and “Run Like an Antelope,” (as foolish as it sounds in a era of increased jamband jadedness—- it takes guts to cover the Phab Phour), to a spirited version of Michael Franti’s “Stay Human,” (a throwback to his recent tenure on the BIG Summer Classic Tour), the only songbook Williams seemed to neglect was his own. At times, he succeeded, especially on his warped reading of The Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen.” By the end of the show, simply put, Williams had lost himself in a sea of covers.

Almost a decade into his career, Williams has come a long way from his singer/songwriter roots. His laboratory of instruments continues to expand with every tour and now comes complete with video screens and a Joshua-worthy light show. He’s also picked up a side-kick by way of longtime soundman Lou Gossain, who not only plays his mixing board like a sampler, but also adds trumpet-coloring and the occasional backing vocal. Of his own numbers, “Celebrate Youth” and “Indigo” were the most memorable. Unveiling a relatively new noise-machine early on, Williams also performed a slow, ballad-like original which foreshadows a return to the song-orientated material that made Williams a festival favorite.

At times, especially during his segue-filled second set, Williams entered into territory which has eluded him for much of his career. Offering essentially an extended medley, Williams used his noise machine to fill between his loops and pedals. Relying more and more on his bass —-an instrument he first picked up while preparing to sub for String Cheese Incident’s Keith Moseley, Williams managed to dip into light funk and electronica. Through his dizzying array of instruments and pedals, Williams has truly embraced his one-man jamband slug, technology has also seems to have swallowed his individual persona.

By simply being himself, Keller Williams has blossomed into the true, modern face of jam-nation. Yet, somewhere in there, Williams let his own voice slip —- rendering him a road tripper stranded mid-journey. As his audience exited post-show, riding the escalator back into reality underground Fraggle’s, peering into the unknown, Williams closed-up shop with “Best Feeling,” before yielding to a James Brown dance party MCed by Gossain. As if by cue, as the venue’s doors sprung open post-show, a city-wide sightseeing buss passed by en route through Times Square, turning the Nokia into just another destination on a tour filled with peculiar locals.

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