Keller Williams, The Showbox, Seattle, WA- 3/4
After Keller Williams had played the last note of "Celebrate Your Youth" for the encore, after he was comfortably lounging backstage, after the house lights were thrown on and while roadies packed up equipment, that's when attendees finally started dancing. As James Brown played over the speakers and fans filed out the door, other fans took to the floor and starting bouncing around. It was perhaps the first time all night the audience collectively expressed any kind of interest in being there.
Based upon the incessant chatter that lasted throughout both sets it seems the hip thing to do in Seattle nowadays is pay $22 to stand in a dark room and shout to your friends while a musician provides a live soundtrack. On more than one occasion it was a challenge to focus on the song unfolding onstage because the audience was so preoccupied with themselves. And for those who were paying attention, you couldn't really tell whether they were happy to be there or not. That is to say, the vibe at the Showbox was strange, low-energy, dare I say cold? which came as a surprise; after all, Keller tends to exude cheerfulness, the subjects of his songs Bob Barker, outhouse beauties, etc. not exactly the definition of dark material. It seems such lightheartedness should translate to the crowd. Maybe not.
The last time I saw Keller was in October 2003 (not counting the few songs I caught during the Big Summer Classic tour last July) and it seems his live show has become rather streamlined since then. He blazed through his sets, wrapping up each song quickly and tightly before moving on to the next one. At times it felt like a race, and aside from the usual "thank you" at the end, he paused just once about halfway through the second set to say something to the audience. Perhaps this approach wasn't mixing well with the crowd and that provided the resultant vibe? Hypotheses aside, there are good things to say about the gig; Keller is a one-of-a-kind act.
With his shaggy hair shaking back and forth, the looping king hopped onto the stage and immediately started rolling and wailing on his guitar, drawing out deep, steely intonations. The intro gave way to John Lennon's "Nobody Told Me," which was borderline comical as Keller spewed out "nobody told me there'd be days like these" spoken-word-style, dispensing the chorus so quickly someone unfamiliar with the song would have a hard time catching a word he was saying.
Keller's choice and delivery of covers is one thing that makes him worth seeing live he puts more than a little thought into his selections, not just opting for your sixties or seventies giants. Even then, I wasn't expecting "Conservative Christian, Right Wing, Republican, Straight, White American Males." Todd Snider's smart, searing anthem for "lazy-ass hippies" was indeed a treat and managed to generate a few cheers from the crowd.
Keller's covers are not only standout but his renditions too; he takes others' songs and makes them wholly his own. He segued from "Apparition" which he peppered with plenty of falsetto "ahs" into Peter Tosh's version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." Turning the 50s rock and roll number into a reggae-infused ditty, Keller throatily sang, "Oh, oh Johnny. Johnny be good tonight."
During Lucinda Williams' "Change the Locks," images of Washington's Mt. Rainier and Oregon's Mt. Hood flashed on the backdrop screen, eliciting a few whoops from the audience. The guitarist transitioned into a looping instrumental, stepping over to a theremin and lifting his guitar so the neck was pointed at the electronic instrument machine gun-style. He started "shooting" into the air, the theremin picking up every ounce of movement. Keller then blew full steam ahead into "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo" an oft-overlooked Dead tune which is in contention for climax of the show. The ol' western sound lent itself to some toe-tapping and as Keller moved around the stage it was clear he was completely in control.
The first set came to a close with "Freakshow" wherein Scott Sun who was controlling the background images on the screen behind Keller and Lou Gossain running the soundboard (and providing backing vocals) took the spotlight near the back of the room. Sun laid down a sax solo as Keller banged on a cowbell and all music was halted when Gossain picked up his trumpet and blew. The two behind-the-scenes guys then faced off with each other, trading licks. Penned by Ani Difranco, "Freakshow's" lyrics "the tent goes up and the tent comes down / and all that they see is the show" were a perfect reminder that while a "one man band," Keller pulls off his act only with the aid of several others.
When Keller reappeared he kicked things off with "Bounty Hunter," slyly sandwiching the chorus to the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider" into the middle of the song. The remainder of the show was largely devoted to his own repertoire; he worked through "Above the Thunder," "Moving Sidewalk," "Ninja of Love" and "Best Feeling." It appeared the crowd had the most difficulty with this half, as attention spans waned and gabbing increased; although, the audience did take pause to watch Keller pound on his legs with boomwhackers.
There's no doubt Keller has immense talent. One minute he's plucking an upright bass the next beating on the vibes. Maybe this motley approach isn't what people are looking for in Seattle. Maybe it was an off night. But one thing's for sure the Godfather of Soul should consider the Pacific Northwest on his next tour.